Review: Brendan McGeever, Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution

Simon Pirani

In January 1918, two months after Soviet power was established in Petrograd, one of the Red Guard units tasked with securing that power on the ruins of the Russian empire entered Hlukhiv, just over the Russian-Ukrainian border, north east of Kyiv. The unit was pushed out of Hlukhiv by the counter-revolutionary Ukrainian Baturinskii regiment within weeks – but soon joined forces with a group of Red partisans who had arrived from Kursk in southern Russia, and took the town back. A pogrom ensued. The Baturinskii regiment changed sides, claiming they had only resisted Soviet power because the “Yids” had paid them to. The Red Guards, thus reinforced, rampaged around the town proclaiming “eliminate the bourgeoisie and the Yids!”

How many of the town’s 4000 or so Jews fell victim is unknown, but it was in the hundreds. Newspaper reports and eyewitnessed accounts detailed how, for two and a half days, families were lined up and shot, their houses were ransacked and Jews were thrown from moving trains. One report described how 140 were buried in a mass grave. There is no doubt that Hlukhiv’s newly-established Soviet authorities were complicit. After two days of constant killing, they issued an order, “Red Guards! Enough blood!” – but then authorised looting. The synagogue was destroyed and the Torah ripped up. The head of the local soviet then demanded payment from the Jewish survivors.

“In the case of Hlukhiv”, writes Brendan McGeever, “Soviet power was secured by and through antisemitism” (page 48). Within days of the massacre, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, who commanded the Red forces in Ukraine, ordered the recomposition of all Red units in Hlukhiv and surrounding areas; those who resisted were to be shot. McGeever judges that this was “likely” a response to the pogrom. He also shows that the Bolshevik centre in Moscow systematically avoided discussing “Red” pogroms publicly. While Jewish newspapers reported Hlukhiv accurately, larger-circulation Bolshevik newspapers failed to identify the “Red” perpetrators.

The Hlukhiv pogrom was a relatively minor precursor to the ferocious wave of terror unleashed against Ukrainian Jews during the chaotic, multi-sided military conflicts of 1919, in which 1-200,000 died. Those pogroms were the climax of a wave that began in 1917, the year of revolution, and amounted to “the most violent assault on Jewish life in pre-Holocaust modern history” (page 2). There is no doubt – and McGeever reiterates it throughout his narrative – that the overwhelming majority of victims in Ukraine in 1919 were killed by “White” counter-revolutionary and Ukrainian nationalist forces, or in territory controlled by them. Neither is there any question that the policy of the Bolshevik leadership, rooted firmly in Russian socialist tradition, was what we might today call “zero tolerance”. McGeever traces how that policy played out in practice.

How is it that the Russian revolution, “a moment of emancipation and liberation”, was “for many Jews accompanied by racialised violence on an unprecedented scale” (page 2)? McGeever answers by focusing, on one hand, on the minority of pogroms committed by (at least ostensibly) “Red” forces, and on the other, on the strengths and weaknesses of Soviet institutions’ response. The strengths, he argues, emanated largely from initiatives by Jewish socialists, including many who remained outside the Bolshevik party in 1917 and joined during the civil war. McGeever’s book is impeccably researched, thoughtfully argued, and – no small thing at a time when academic publishing more and more resembles a sausage machine – well organised and carefully edited. In this review I look at three key issues: the way that antisemitism overlapped with revolutionary politics (e.g. “eliminate the bourgeoisie and the Yids!”); the limits to the Bolshevik response; and the part played by Jewish socialists in combating antisemitism.


This piece is being made available as a preprint edition of the double-volume Marxism and the Critique of Antisemitism special issue of Historical Materialism. Further additions will still be made before then. The final published version of this text will be made available on the Brill website in the coming months. We ask that citations refer to the Brill edition.All Illustrations are by Natalia Podpora.


“Red” antisemitism

The revolution of February 1917 destroyed the tsarist empire and the legal apparatus of its dictatorship. More than 140 anti-Jewish statutes, which made Jews second-class citizens and confined them to the Pale of Settlement, were swept away, along with legal constraints on peasant farmers, on freedom of speech and assembly, and on much else. But the explosion of social mobilisation, which culminated later in 1917 in mass desertion from the army, land seizures by peasants and factory occupations, had its ugly sides, including a resurgence of antisemitism.

McGeever records that, from the start, the soviet movement issued appeals to combat antisemitism, and warned of its ability to “disguise itself under radical slogans” (page 26). And it needed to: speakers at a street corner rally in Petrograd urged crowds to “smash the Jews and the bourgeoisie!” (as the Red Guards would do in Hlukhiv a few months later) (page 24); people queuing to vote for the Constituent Assembly called on “whoever’s against the Yids” to vote Bolshevik (page 31); absurdly, as Alexander Kerensky left the Winter Palace, when his government fell, he read a slogan, painted on a wall, “down with the Jew Kerensky, long live Trotsky!” (page 32).

Before the revolution, the socialist opponents of tsarism had all resolutely opposed antisemitism, although they were divided as to how to respond to its manifestation among workers. (The Russian left parties seem to strike a contrast with those in France, Germany and Austria, where antisemitism ran rampant not just on the streets but among prominent politicians.[1]) In 1917, anti-Bolshevik socialists, and the Mensheviks in particular, accused the Bolsheviks of harbouring or tolerating antisemitism. McGeever urges that such accusation be treated with caution: under circumstances when the right-wing socialists were siding with the pro-war government, while the Bolsheviks were siding with the fast-radicalising masses, this was easy mud to throw. But the aspirations that underpinned the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power in October – peace, bread and land – can not be neatly fenced off from antisemitism either. “Revolution and antisemitism existed not only in conflict but in articulation as well”, McGeever insists (page 30).

This articulation persisted in the hellish conflict in Ukraine in 1919. McGeever makes a convincing case that, especially (but not only) among Ukrainian peasants, revolutionary hopes overlapped with murderous antisemitism. The peasants, overwhelmingly Ukrainian by nationality, saw towns – with high proportions of Russian and Jewish people, whether workers or middle class – as hostile and foreign. “[T]he ‘cityman’ represented a ruthless profiteer, an oppressor of the poor Ukrainian toiler” (page 91). This perception could turn into hostility to “communists”, who were “urban, non-Ukrainians who stood aloof from peasant life; they were ‘Russian oppressors’ and, above all, ‘speculating Jews’” (page 92). Such prejudices were on one hand fed on by the Whites, but on the other hand could fade into a grotesque combination of pro-soviet antisemitism. “Down with the Yids, down with this Moscow Communist government, long live Soviet power!”, shouted peasants in Poltava (page 92).

The violent culmination of this left antisemitism was the armed incursion led by Nikifor Grigor’ev, a peasant ataman who first allied with the Red army and then turned on it. McGeever quotes his Universal, a manifesto that called peasants to revolt (page 98):

In place of land and freedom they [the Bolsheviks] have subjected you to the commune, to the Cheka, and to the commissars, those gluttonous Muscovites from the land where they crucified Christ. [...] Down with the political speculators! ... Long live the power of the soviets of the people of Ukraine!

In early May 1919, Grigor’ev, having taken Odessa in the name of the Red Army, turned against the Bolsheviks. Over the next 18 days his units perpetrated at least 52 pogroms, in which at least 3400 Jews were killed. McGeever relates, in excruciating detail, how local Soviets, and some Red army units that were supposed to be fighting Grigor’ev – in particular, the notorious 8th Soviet Ukrainian regiment – joined in. In some regiments, communists who opposed antisemitism were heavily outnumbered by pogromists: in the 3000-strong 6th regiment, which carried out a pogrom in Vasylkiv in mid April, a group of communist soldiers who called on their comrades-in-arms not to attack Jews comprised 42 members, falling to 20 during early 1919 (page 125).

McGeever’s excruciating account of “Red” pogroms should give any communist pause for thought. His insight that the social forces on which the Bolsheviks relied were prone to antisemitism – that it was not, as the Bolsheviks claimed, solely an external, “counter-revolutionary” phenomenon (see below) – is essential. Further, in the conclusions to the chapter on Ukraine in 1919, he writes that “antisemitism provided a conduit for [...] partisan Red Army soldiers to make the journey from ‘revolution’ to ‘counter-revolution’”; that in the social formation that supported Bolshevism in Ukraine, “antisemitism was a dominant form of consciousness”; that the Bolsheviks’ attempts to combat this were fraught with difficulties since “antisemitism and ‘Bolshevism’ were often co-extensive projects in the popular imaginary”; and that the Grigor’ev revolt “seemed to represent what many within the Bolsheviks’ social base in Ukraine desired: a populist leftist government that represented ‘true Bolshevism’ or true ‘Soviet power’” (pages 110-111). This left me with questions.

The description of the Ukrainian peasantry, and peasants who at times found themselves in the Red Army, as “the Bolsheviks’ social base” (on pages 92, 94 and 111) over-simplifies a complex, many-sided relationship. The Bolshevik presence in Ukraine was largely urban (through party branches in the towns, who were active in the soviets) and military. As McGeever acknowledges, the Red Army in Ukraine included large numbers of peasants-in-uniform who had transferred directly from defeated White forces and partisan formations. “Although nominally Soviet, the Bolshevik leadership could scarcely be confident of their allegiance, let alone attempt to control them”; the centralisation of the Red Army in Ukraine was “simply impossible” (page 93).

And this was just the start of the problem. Peasant support for the Reds was often constrained not only by antisemitism but by opposition e.g. to compulsory grain procurement and clashing conceptions of what “soviet democracy” might mean. Rural and urban political cultures really were distant from each other. Across Ukraine, and much of Russia, “green” peasant formations resisted both Reds and Whites, or sided with the Reds, only to revolt against them when the Whites were irreversibly defeated. There were Don Cossack Reds under Filipp Mironov who joined the Red Army but, when they pressed demands for political autonomy, were suppressed; there were the left Socialist Revolutionaries (Borotbisty) (mentioned in passing by McGeever) and of course the formations led by the anarchist, Nestor Makhno (mentioned in a footnote).

To investigate these multiple facets of Ukrainian peasant politics would be another book. But McGeever’s book sometimes lacked a sense of this larger context within which the battles over antisemitism were fought. I also wonder whether he attributes more agency to the Bolsheviks than they could possibly have had in Ukraine in 1919. With Grigor’ev, he writes, they “were gambling the future of the revolution on a partisan and highly contentious social base” (page 96), and he quotes Antonov-Ovseenko’s absurdly indulgent view of Grigor’ev. Perhaps further research would show that Grigor’ev was simply playing the Reds, who were unable to do more than acknowledge the poisoned chalice of his support, for as long as it lasted.[2]

Whatever the answer to such questions, they do not detract from the strength of McGeever’s main argument. “Red” pogroms were conducted not only by temporary fellow-travellers such as Grigor’ev, but also by more well-established units, and by local party organisations. Examples McGeever gives (pages 108-110) include pogroms during the Soviet-Polish war of 1920 perpetrated by units of the First Red Cavalry, led by Semen Budennyi, one of the Soviet government’s most trusted forces. Scores of Budennyi’s troops, possibly up to 400, were executed as punishment (page 180).   

The Bolshevik response 

In 1918, the Bolshevik government in Moscow mounted an emphatic response to the new state’s first wave of pogroms – albeit with considerable delay, between the Hlukhiv massacre in March and the formation of the short-lived Commission for the Struggle against Antisemitism and Pogroms in May. It took further action in 1919-20: in the Red Army, pogromists faced punishments up to and including execution, which in keeping with the prevailing chaos were implemented unevenly and sometimes not at all. Jewish socialists played a leading role in coordinating this response, and I discuss this below. Here I look at McGeever’s arguments about the political limitations of these initiatives, which comprised one of the world’s first state-led anti-racist campaigns.

In early 1919, as antisemitic violence gathered pace, the first senior Soviet leader to take action was Khristian Rakovskii, then effectively head of the Soviet government in Ukraine. He issued an order warning that those spreading “antisemitic propaganda” were subject to arrest, with a specific warning to those in Red Army uniforms of “the most brutal and severe measures” (page 114). This order, issued nearly a year after Hlukhiv, was the first public acknowledgment by a Bolshevik leader that there were Red, as well as White, pogromists. Such frankness in public was an exception to the rule. McGeever shows that the Soviet press was extremely slow to take up the cudgels against antisemitism, and that when it did, it first avoided mention of, and later actually suppressed information about, Red Army involvement.

In Ukraine, the coverage of the anti-Jewish massacres was mixed. In April 1919, as reports of pogroms intensified, local Bolshevik party newspapers regularly denounced antisemitism, but the two largest-circulation Red Army newspapers there published not a single article on antisemitism between them. Jewish communists attributed the problem, in part, to Moscow. In mid-May, with Grigor’ev’s slaughter campaign in full swing, their protests were finally heeded with the first-ever lead article on antisemitism in Pravda, the Moscow-based Bolshevik flagship title. A second, and last, lead article on the subject appeared in June – only  after the Orgburo, the day-to-day working committee of senior party leaders pointed out “for the third time” how “essential” it was to speak out (page 128). As for antisemitism in the Red Army, this was effectively “render[ed] invisible”. A table, categorising pogroms in January-August 1919 by type of perpetrator, was sent toZhizn’ Natsional’nostei (The Life of Nationalities), the newspaper of the Commissariat for National Affairs. A column attributing 120 pogroms, with 500 fatalities, to the Red Army, was simply deleted – and the number of killings attributed to Grigor’ev cut from 6000 to 4000 (page 131).

The Bolsheviks’ refusal publicly to discuss antisemitism in the state’s institutions and army was informed by an understanding of it as an external, “counter-revolutionary” force. McGeever points to key statements by Lenin, who called antisemitism the work of “capitalists, who strive to sow and foment hatred between workers of different faiths, different nations and different races”, and Evgenii Preobrazhenskii, who attributed it solely to “the Russian bourgeoisie”, who use it to “divert the anger of exploited workers”. McGeever argues that such “reductive conceptualisations failed to account for the many-sided nature of antisemitism, and, in particular, the way it traversed the political divide, finding expression within the left as well as the right” (page 120).

After the civil war, as the Soviet state consolidated its institutions and control over its territory, this crude view of antisemitism as a weapon wielded by external enemies became standardised. So did the public silence on “Red” pogroms. One of several examples given by McGeever is a book on the Ukrainian pogroms of 1919 by Sergei Gusev-Orenburgskii, published in Petrograd in 1921. It was “heavily redacted by Soviet censors such that each and every reference to Bolshevik and Red Army antisemitism was deleted”, shortening it by 100 pages (page 133). Keeping Red Army antisemitism out of the public domain at all costs became “a well-established practice” (page 135).

The reductive view of antisemitism also disarmed the Bolsheviks before workers and peasants who saw Jews as lazy speculators. “In the popular imaginary, ‘the Jew’ was often positioned in an antagonistic class relation to the ‘working people’”, McGeever writes (page 183). This perception filtered through Soviet and Red Army institutions in numerous ways. Given the circumstances – of being surrounded by an unprecedented racist slaughter – the anti-capitalist discourse used by party propagandists sometimes trod a politically questionable line. What were officials in Moscow thinking when they sent directives in mid-1919, at the height of the Ukrainian nightmare, to “sweep away the speculators who have stolen from you”? What were Red Army commanders in Kyiv smoking when they sanctioned the distribution of posters urging “beat the bourgeoisie”, a wording all too close to the age-old pogromists’ chant, “beat the Yids” (page 184)?

Later on, in the 1920s, McGeever relates how Jewish communists discussed the position of Jews in the Soviet state with reference to the fight for hard work and against speculation, “and ‘Jewish speculation’ specifically” (page 202). Here a key trope of left antisemitism merged with the obsession with “honest labour” and productivity, which became prominent in Soviet discourse as the Bolsheviks strove to put the economy back on its feet and restore labour discipline. 

McGeever describes how, during the civil war, local, and even national, Bolshevik officials often retreated before a mass of demands that Russians, rather than Jews, be sent to fill responsible posts, and a constant barrage of unsubstantiated complaints that Jews were avoiding front-line service in the Red Army. He looks at a proposal by Lenin, made in November 1919 when the Bolsheviks were putting together institutional structures in Ukraine, on top of civil war wreckage, to “keep a tight rein on Jews and urban inhabitants, [...] transferring them to the front, not letting them into government agencies (except in an insignificant percentage and in particularly exceptional circumstances, under class control)” (page 193). The proposal was adopted and published in a sanitised version with the reference to Jews omitted. But McGeever argues convincingly (page 195) that Lenin was responding to the widespread belief that Jews were underrepresented at the front and overrepresented in comfy offices. Another recommendation made in Bolshevik leadership meetings was to counter antisemitism in the Red Army by deploying Jewish communists in regiments dominated by peasants, which “would have the effect of reducing counter-revolutionary sentiments among the Red Army milieu” (page 187). To my mind, that was a good suggestion, although McGeever thought that, while motivated by a desire to counter antisemitism, it emphasised “changing Jews” rather than changing those with antisemitic ideas. 

This controversy over the deployment of Jews in Ukraine was part of a longer-standing discussion about Jews taking prominent Soviet state positions. Trotsky, the ultimate assimilated internationalist Jew, spoke in 1923 and wrote again in his autobiography in 1930 about how in 1917 he had refused some of the most senior state positions for fear of acting as a red rag to antisemitic bulls chasing “Jew-communists”.[3]

Jewish socialists’ practice 

The first Soviet state responses to the 1918 pogroms came at the end of April, in Moscow, when the regional government body (Moscow Sovnarkom) coordinated a propaganda campaign, and called on the Cheka (extraordinary commissions, the embryonic security police apparatus) to act against pogroms. McGeever shows that these actions were preceded by, and pushed forward, by a group of non-Bolshevik Jewish socialists. In March 1918, in the midst of an unprecedented revival of Yiddish culture after the 1917 emancipation, these Yiddish speakers – members of the Poalei Zion, the United Jewish Socialist Workers Party and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries – formed the Moscow Evkom (Jewish committee) (page 56). They protested vehemently at the lack of central action against rising antisemitism; on 11 April their representative, David Davidovich, addressed the All Russian Central Executive Committee (VTsIK, effectively the government). “It was the non-Bolshevik Jewish socialist who pressed antisemitism on to the agenda of the Bolshevik leadership. This dynamic would resurface time and again” (page 66). For the Jewish socialists,

[T]he slaughtering of Jews was not epiphenomenal, nor was it a mere facet of the revolutionary process. It was the fundamental question in the spring of 1918, and it shaped their own engagement with the revolution during this period.

The earth-shattering political events that followed – the outbreak of the Russian civil war,  the failed German revolution of November 1918, and the Proskuriv pogrom by the Whites in mid-February 1919 – galvanised Jewish socialists. The Jewish groups – like many other socialist parties across the old Russian empire – split, usually along pro- and anti-Bolshevik lines. The Jewish communists, retaining varying degrees of autonomous organisation, merged into the Bolshevik party. They called on Jews to join the Red Army to fight Whites and pogromists. As one of these groups, the Komfarband, declared at its founding conference in May 1919, the pogroms had “not been able to stop the revolutionary process”, but on the contrary, had raised “the level of revolutionary energy among the urban [Jewish] poor, before whom stands the prospect of physical extermination” (page 148).

The Jewish communists’ response to the pogroms was underpinned by an “ethical imperative”, in McGeever’s phrase (pages 85, 160-161, 171). They spoke from the subject position of “racialised outsiders”, a concept he borrows from the sociologist Satnam Virdee. There was a tension between this and the approach of most Bolsheviks, for whom the fight against pogroms was subordinate to the larger struggle against counter-revolution. This was starkly evident at a conference of the Evsektsiia (Jewish sections of the Bolshevik party) on 1 June 1919. Ia. Mandel’sberg, a Komfarband representative, interjected in a debate about the sections’ orientation to the Jewish middle class, that “the main enemy of the Jewish working class is antisemitism, and to fight it we need urgently to outline a set of concrete measures”. Semen Dimanshtein, head of the Evsektsiia and more ideologically committed to Bolshevism, retorted that “antisemitism is not a special Jewish question, as Mandel’sberg thinks ... it is a plague on the revolution; it is the slogan of the counter-revolution” (page 163).

None other than Mikhail Kalinin, the chairman of the VTsIK and titular head of the Soviet state, who was attending the meeting as a guest, intervened, implicitly supporting Mandel’sberg. He pointed out: “There are no other people who have shed as much blood as the Jewish people have ... no honest person can remain indifferent to the current mass murder of the Jews.” Arkadii Al’skii, like Dimanshtein a committed Bolshevik, refuted Kalinin’s argument, insisting that “Jewish communists fight under the banner of the Russian Communist Party against all enemies of the revolution, no matter who they are”; they approached the issue of antisemitism not as “Jewish national-Communists” but as “Communist Jews who have no connection with the Jewish bourgeoisie” (page 165). Kalinin, to the astonishment of the meeting, walked out. Would that Mandel’sberg and others had been able to adapt a slogan from the future: “Jewish lives matter.”

It is to McGeever’s credit that he has recovered these pioneering discussions on what we would today call the politics of anti-racism. The conversations were cut short. In the early 1920s, many of the most prominent Evsektsiia activists were dispersed, to work in Soviet departments or universities, or to continue their struggle in other countries. By the time of the major post-civil-war state campaign against antisemitism, launched in 1926, the Soviet state had changed beyond recognition. In the run-up to the first five year plan and forced collectivisation, antisemites were added to an “ever-growing list of harmful enemies, alongside kulaks, priests, wreckers, speculators and hooligans”, McGeever writes (page 214). The campaign was motivated less by a desire to protect Jewish life than by the larger state project of targeting threats to the regime. Including much of the peasantry, it could be added.

Concluding comments

Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution is welcome because of the care with which McGeever examines the history of the revolution as an interaction between political forces – the Bolshevik party, and the Jewish socialists who fought alongside it – and society. The particular problem of antisemitic violence is abstracted from the general process of revolution and civil war, into which it has often been subsumed. For communists, McGeever’s work is especially timely. We live at a strange conjuncture, when hero-worship of the Bolsheviks has been resurrected in the mythical construct of “ecological Leninism”.[4] Rather than yearning for 20th century heroes to resolve our 21st century problems, McGeever focuses soberly on how the Bolsheviks, and others, dealt with the life and death problems in front of them.

The internationalism with which the Russian revolution became associated, its function as a focus for anti-imperialist struggles throughout the twentieth century, now appears to be one of its most significant legacies. The Bolsheviks “can not claim exclusive credit for putting the struggle against colonialism on the political agenda of the 20th century”, Steve Smith concludes in his recent history of the revolution, but it was the Communist International (Comintern) that “popularised militant anti-imperialism” and served as a training ground for leaders of national liberation struggles.[5] Without minimising the Soviet Union’s imperial dimension, Smith adds, the Soviet “commitment to affirmative action and empowerment programmes for ethnic minorities” looked forward to much that changed in the second half of the twentieth century elsewhere. Priyamvada Gopal, in her history of resistance in the British empire, argues that the overthrow of tsarism had “a galvanising influence on resistance to imperial rule in many parts of the world”; the Comintern “was a significant catalyst” to the process of resistance, even though its vacillations were sometimes part of the problem.[6]

Against this background, McGeever’s focus on the first and most immediate manifestation of national or racial oppression during the revolution – the frightful assault on Jews – seems especially relevant. His account of the overlap between the emancipatory hopes raised in millions of people by the revolution and the poison of antisemitism is compelling. As for the socialist actors in his story, he shows how the Bolsheviks’ efforts to counter antisemitism were hamstrung not only by the dire circumstances, but by their narrow, ideologised understanding of how antisemitism worked. Kalinin’s implicit rejection of that approach, pushed by the Jewish socialists at the Evsektsiia meeting in June 1919, really stuck in my mind. In many ways the Jewish socialists’ struggles – alongside, and sometimes in sharp disputes with, the Bolsheviks – foreshadow the struggles that Gopal describes, by African, Indian and Caribbean socialists with their British and other counterparts later in the twentieth century. Working over the lessons of those struggles, notwithstanding the real human tragedies that surrounded them, is inspiring.

[1] See Hannah Arendt on “Leftist Antisemitism”, in The Origins of Totalitarianism (London: Penguin, 2017), pp 53-65

[2] A standard account of the civil war is Evan Mawdsley, The Russian Civil War (London: Allen & Unwin, 1987). Trotsky, when he arrived in Ukraine in May 1919, reported to the Bolshevik central committee that “the prevailing state of chaos, irresponsibility, laxity and separatism” exceeded the most pessimistic expectations. M. Meijer (ed.),The Trotsky Papers I (1917-1922) (The Hague: Mouton, 1964), p. 431.

[3] Trotsky, My Life, chapter 29 <;; Valentina Vilkova,The Struggle for Power: Russia in 1923 (New York: Prometheus Books, 1997), pages 183-184

[4] On “ecological Leninism”, see for example Andreas Malm, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century (London: Verso, 2020), and this reviewer’s comments in: S. Pirani, “The direct air capture road to socialism?”,Capitalism Nature Socialism, March 2021.

[5] S.A. Smith, Russia in Revolution: an empire in crisis 1890-1928 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017)

[6] Priyamvada Gopal, Insurgent Empire: anticolonial resistance and British dissent (London: Verso, 2020), p. 211

Victor Serge: Three Writings on the Jewish Question and Antisemitism, 1943-47

Translated and edited by Paolo Casciola, with an introduction by Claudio Albertani

By Way of an Introduction: The Middle Ages Chasing Us by Claudio Albertani

– Let us be allowed to laugh, madam, about this demented undertaking, the universal extermination of the Jews,

They won’t succeed, they are too many, and besides, the Rich will always be saved, and they’ll say: we are Aryans,

They will be believed because they will pay,

And the poor, madam, Jews or Aryans, are nothing.

– Victor Serge, ‘Marseille’ (1941)


This piece is being made available as a preprint edition of the double-volume Marxism and the Critique of Antisemitism special issue of Historical Materialism. Further additions will still be made before then. The final published version of this text will be made available on the Brill website in the coming months. We ask that citations refer to the Brill edition.All Illustrations are by Natalia Podpora.


Towards the end of the 19th century, the well-known German socialist August Bebel defined antisemitism as ‘the socialism of fools’. Today the situation has changed. If it is true, in fact, that there are only a few of us left to be socialists – or libertarians, in my case – the fools have reproduced themselves in geometric progression. We live in a sick society and, among the many forms of sterile resentment that corrode it, racism – of which antisemitism is an expression – continues to occupy a significant place. So-called social networks, which in fact have very little social about them, overflow with stereotyped images of foreigners bearing who knows what evil essence supposedly marking them apart from other human beings. Sometimes, the clueless who say and write such nonsense call themselves ‘leftists’.

At the same time, we are witnessing the spread of the paradigm of antisemitism, now used against any individual or social group that is considered ungovernable. In the West, the ghetto and the pogrom – a word of Russian origin, indicating the massive lynching of Jews and the plundering of their property – are treatments historically reserved to Jews, as well as gypsies and revolutionaries. Today, walls, barriers, barbed wire, fences and enclosures have multiplied all over the world. These are so many ominous signs of the new Middle Ages, the warning signs of which Victor Serge (Brussels, 1890-Mexico City, 1947), the author of the texts we present here, observed in the 1930s and 1940s.

A dreadful mixture of irrationalism, cult of hierarchy, tradition and modernity, fascism was the axis around which the history of the 20th century turned, and remains one of the key facets of the first twenty years of the new millennium. Like in its classic variant, the current fascism exploits the never completely extinguished impulses of nationalism, intolerance and xenophobia. With one difference. Discrimination now no longer concerns mainly the Jews, but is directed above all against the populations that Capital fears for different reasons, but of which it has a terrible need.

There are, first of all, immigrants, now subjected to various forms of segregation ranging from forced residence to actual concentration camps. But there is much more. In a mocking replication of history, Israel has built an immense ghetto in Gaza where it locks up Palestinians just for being Palestinians, in the same way as the Nazis segregated Jews just for being Jews. In Turkey and elsewhere those afflicted by this plague are the Kurds, and in the Americas the blacks or the indigenous, guilty, like the Maya of Chiapas, of living in territories rich in oil and natural resources. The list is long and could continue, but it would take us off-topic.

It is worth asking why this brief selection of writings on the Jewish question and antisemitism is being published here. Besides the fact that, to our knowledge, these three texts have never appeared before in English, this is not just an exercise in historiography. It is also this, but perhaps it stems even more from the need to shed light on our present, on the particularly insidious forms of totalitarianism that characterise the society in which we live and that were only in its infancy in the 1940s.

An attentive observer, Victor Serge belonged to the scattered groups of intransigent militants – libertarian Marxists, anarchists, Trotskyists, councilists, Bordigists and independent socialists – who, despite the great differences that separated them, had managed to maintain an admirable lucidity in the midst of the ‘midnight of the century’, when the revolutionary cycle was over and so-called bourgeois civilization showed its true murderous face.

Each in their own way, those militants had understood the essential features of the great transformation underway, showing the convergences, as well as the differences, between fascist totalitarianism, Stalinist totalitarianism and the so-called ‘Western democracies’. It should be remembered that in a 1933 letter, written shortly before his last arrest, Serge had been one of the first to characterise the Soviet Union as a totalitarian country.

These three articles are each occasional in character — something which, far from limiting their interest, increases it. In fact, besides being a historian, a novelist and a poet, the author of Memoirs of a Revolutionary – a cult book, translated in dozens of languages and still indispensable to understanding the epic of the betrayed revolutions of the first half of the 20th century – was also a great chronicler, a scrupulous narrator of the tragic events that took place before his eyes. Unlike many other intellectuals and militants of that time, he perceived the deadly consequences of Nazi antisemitism, so to speak, in real time.

The first text, undated but certainly written in the first months of 1943, brings together brief notes, probably intended to be part of a larger essay, and treats antisemitism, as a general problem of counterrevolution, within the framework of the Russian 1905 and especially of Nazi totalitarianism. The reaction, Serge writes, is about destroying the dignity of the human person and creating deadly psychoses in the context of social warfare.

‘The Jewish Question’ offers Serge’s answers to a questionnaire sent him in 1944 by Babel, a splendid Chilean magazine edited by Enrique Espinoza – pseudonym of Samuel Glusberg –, a Jew by birth and a Trotskyist sympathizer. Faced with the spread of antisemitism, Serge felt compelled to mount a real apologia for Jewish culture by mentioning Marx, Freud, Einstein, Zweig and others, all authors of universal stature. Antisemitism, he concludes, anticipating Hannah Arendt’s studies, demands a psychological and social analysis and must be considered in the context of the destruction of humanism that was, and still is, one of the characteristic features of our time.

‘Opinions and Facts on the Jewish Question’ – undated (and we do not know if it was ever published), but undoubtedly drafted after 17 August 1947, the day of publication of Arthur Koestler’s ‘Letter to a parent of a British soldier in Palestine’ that Serge reviews, and prior to 17 November, the date of his sudden death –, although showing disagreement with the opinions in favor of Zionist terrorism expressed by Koestler, also displays, it must be admitted, an insufficient sensitivity to the incipient Palestinian question and an excessive severity towards the Muslim cause in the Middle East.

These are, it seems to me, all themes of tremendous topicality.

Mexico City, November 2021 (Year II of the healthcare dictatorship)

*     *     *


[early 1943 ca.]

Nazi antisemitism heightens, with all the abominable violence of a crime of historically unique magnitude, the new character of this war and its aspects of civil war.

During the imperialist war of 1914-18 there was no antisemitism because European humanism, which did not exclude either wars between states or class wars but did tend to impose its own laws upon them, was not itself put into doubt. Today this humanism is struck at its foundations: in totalitarian systems the Christian spirit, the scientific spirit and the socialist spirit are destroyed or mortally disfigured.

Contemporary antisemitism was born in the social struggles in Russia at the time of the first revolution (1905). The pogroms were then organised by the imperial authorities and the monarchical leagues in order to offer a diversion to popular violence. The old regime wanted scapegoats and, in order to better subjugate mankind through the repression of the revolutionary movement, sought to accustom the masses to collective crime, perpetrated against a defenseless religious minority.

In 1918-21, during the Russian civil war, the monarchist and nationalist gangs started the extermination of the Jews. The victory of the revolution put an end to Russian antisemitism.[2] The Protocols of the Elders of Zion[3] were fabricated in Russia by visionary mystics and policemen. They constitute one of the ideological elements of Nazi antisemitism.[4]

The motives behind the antisemitism of the Third Reich are those of the counterrevolution itself. It is, once again, a question of directing the violence of the masses against an unarmed minority of the nation. In order to better destroy the dignity of the human person, it is necessary to accustom society to the humiliation, spoliation, and extermination of a social category arbitrarily chosen precisely because it is defenseless. This means unleashing and fostering the murderous psychoses most indispensable to the social war waged by reaction (even despite the fact that they are clearly contrary to the interests of Nazi neo-imperialism in the world war). From the economic point of view, this means expropriating a wealthy minority of the nation without, however, directly threatening the capitalist classes as a whole, and irrevocably binding a large number of executors to the Nazi system, through their criminal complicity.

A multitude of testimonies tells us that the German people, as a whole, are unaware of most of the crimes of antisemitism, and that when they do know them they are not at all complicit in them. These crimes are those of the Nazi system. They will one day bring down dreadful and deserved punishments on their perpetrators, for which we count first of all on the German people themselves. Born out of the civil war, antisemitism remains a factor for civil war.

According to the incomplete information in our possession, the extermination of the Jewish population in occupied Russia is more or less complete. Belarus and Ukraine had over two million Israelite workers. The fact that this population bound to martyrdom was not completely evacuated during the invasion, when there could be no doubt as to its fate, we consider a real crime. In Poland the systematic extermination of the Jewish population – over three million inhabitants – began in 1942; the extermination of the 400,000 inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto began in July 1942 and, in December, the ghetto had no more than 40,000 survivors. Most of Poland's Jews would have been killed by asphyxiation trucks.

These nameless horrors attest to the fact that elementary human sentiment, acquired over long centuries of civilisation, was deliberately trampled upon by Nazism. They would be sufficient to demonstrate an essential difference between this war and all those that preceded it. Since antisemitism and racial discrimination were, in all countries of the world, the prerogative of reactionary movements, these crimes stand as a condemnation of the international reaction.



(12 October 1944)

We posed the following questions to some writers from different countries:

1. Could you summarise for us some of your significant personal experiences pertaining to your fellow citizens of Jewish descent?

2. Do you accept any racial discrimination against or in favour of the so-called sons or grandsons of Israel?

3. What do you think about antisemitism and its consequences in today’s world?

Here are some of the answers we received:


1. My experience has led me to regard the Jewish nation as one of the most gifted. In the modern world, divided by social struggles, it has produced great capitalists, skilled merchants, high quality intellectuals, a multitude of socialists and revolutionaries, thinkers whose contribution to civilisation has been essential. This is to say that, though it is socially divided like all other nations, it has distinguished itself in every field. If one considers the masters of thought of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, one is struck to see that the Jews have provided incomparable figures, whose influence has been and remains immense: such as Karl Marx, founder of scientific socialism; Sigmund Freud, one of the founders of modern psychology; Albert Einstein, innovator of modern physics and scientific philosophy; Leon Trotsky, man of thought and action... Other names also deserve mentioning here, such as the French philosopher Henri Bergson, the socialist Lévy-Bruhl, the writer Stefan Zweig, the critic Georg Brandes... It is unfair to mention only a few names; we realise that the contribution of the Jews to the intelligence of our time has been powerful and fruitful.

I personally met many Jews belonging to every social condition. I met some who were heroes and other who were more than unpleasant; but, after all, all of them were intelligent and active.

2. It seems to me that with regard to the Jews it is more appropriate to use the term nation or people rather than race, because today there are no pure races (unless we are satisfied with broad divisions of the human species into white, black, yellow and red races). The Semitic family includes Arabs, Bedouins, Ethiopians, and Jews, but from its origins it has undergone endless mixing; Ethiopians are black or nearly so, Arabs, Bedouins, and Jews are white. A historical and religious tradition has maintained the Jewish people for millennia through many conquests and much mixing. In the early Middle Ages there was in Russia, on the Volga, a Khazarian empire, probably Mongolian, who converted to Judaism. There are Chinese, Tartar and other populations that practice Judaism. Finally, after the disbanding of the kingdom of Israel, in the first century of our era, the Jewish colonies of Europe, the Middle East and America have undergone so much ethnic mixing that there are blond, red, brown and black Jewish types, sometimes recognizable and sometimes indistinguishable from other European types. In this case, to speak of racial discrimination is to fall into reactionary absurdity by adopting an anti-scientific attitude.

Perhaps it would not be superfluous to remind that the spiritual and social revolution that has left the deepest trace in the whole development of European civilisation started from Judea, originally stirred by great Jews, the more famous of whom is Jesus of Nazareth… To say it schematically, the origins of our civilization are Greek-Roman and Jewish.

Another important consideration arises in favour of the Jews and tends to explain their great intellectual quality. They are the only white people who have, like the Hindus and Chinese, a tradition of civilisation going back to 4,000 years. The white peoples who founded the earliest civilizations of the Middle East and the Mediterranean left no direct lines of descent. At the time when the Jews were already an old cultured people, endowed with a long history and religious thought that was arriving at a monotheistic philosophy, the Indo-European peoples were still but primitive peoples.

3. Antisemitism requires a psychological and social analysis that I cannot outline here. In practice, it arose in Russia during the revolution of 1905, as a pretext of the royalist reaction concerned to divert the violent instincts of ignorant and destitute masses against a defenseless religious minority. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were deliberately fabricated by Russian police with the help of some visionaries (this story has been reconstructed in all its details). The function of Nazi antisemitism was the same: at a time when German capitalism was going bankrupt, it worked to redirect against Jewish capitalism the anti-capitalist sentiment of the masses; to divert the sadistic instincts of part of the disorientated masses into aggression against a defenseless minority; to create an irrational psychology at a time when rational thought was becoming dangerous to governments; to create through violence, spoliation and massacres the terrible bond of criminal complicity between all participants in antisemitism (in order to cement its ability to resist); to degrade mankind in general in order to more easily break its opposition to the totalitarian regime. It goes without saying that after humiliating and murdering the Jew in the street, it becomes easy to humiliate and murder anyone; the precedent is set, a feeling of powerlessness and degradation has set in,humanism is destroyed. The politically utilitarian aspect of Nazi antisemitism also flows from the fact that Hitler’s racism, by concluding an alliance with Japan,[6] abandoned the yellow peril doctrine that had been the doctrine of the beginnings of Germanic racism and, notoriously, of Wilhelm II. The counterrevolutionary (anti-socialist) character of antisemitism stems from the fact that in Russia, after the bloody pogroms of 1905-06 and the massacres of the Jews of Ukraine at the hands of reactionary gangs in 1918, the victorious revolution put a definitive end to antisemitism, without real effort and almost without repression.

In Russia, Poland and occupied Europe, the Nazis have exterminated several million Jews, i.e., skilled and hardworking Europeans, with scientific organisation, by means of asphyxiating trucks, etc. (As long as they could, the Nazis concealed from the German people the extent of this crime.) In this way, they caused irreparable harm to Europe and to the entire civilised world for an extended period of time. By cultivating an irrational ideology based on murder, they managed to awaken and mobilize in the whole world those sadistic instincts that Christian civilisation, scientific culture, European humanism and socialism seemed to have tamed. The psychological and social consequences of this degradation of modern man will certainly persist long after the liquidation of Nazism and the punishment of the guilty. This means that in the struggle for the greatness and liberation of man, for a new humanism, the battle against conscious or unconscious antisemitism will be long, difficult, unceasing, and will constitute one of our most imperative duties.


[August 1947]

The Statesman and Nation, London

The Socialist Leader, London

The New Leader, N[ew] Y[ork]

Arthur Koestler does not figure on the roster of the contributors to the old English liberal weekly The Statesman and Nation. Koestler’s position on totalitarianism is well known; on the other hand, the liberal weekly is full of indulgence and sympathy for the likes of Tito, Bierut and Vyshinsky...[8] So, we are surprised to see in The Statesman [and Nation], by way of an exception, a remarkable ‘Letter to the father of a British soldier stationed in Palestine’ signed by Koestler.[9] In a few columns, the Palestinian question is dealt with thoroughly, forcefully and clearly, by a masterful writer who offers us a fresh demonstration of civic courage. Today, courage is not such a common commodity that we are not at least a little heartened to see it at work. Koestler, a Hungarian Jew and naturalised Englishman, and moreover a former communist who has become – by this very fact – anti-Stalinist, could express himself in London, on such a subject, without the slightest reticence, and his beautiful prose is being published by liberals who, as far as international politics are concerned, are his adversaries! Freedom of opinion and intellectual loyalty occupy a place of honor... Koestler declares himself an advocate of terrorism in Palestine and emphasises its irrefutable, passional motivation. We believe that on this point he is wrong, and his own wiser leanings lead him to advance reservations ‘on the way terrorism is being applied’. In this case everything depends on the nature of the acts, that is, on the ‘way’ of doing things and not on the principle. Today no one will be outraged by the street execution of an executioner or a military brute guilty of the death of some Dachau survivors. But does Jewish thought, Jewish ethics, the cause of the Jewish people and all the oppressed of the world justify the hanging of two young British soldiers who were not personally responsible for anything? Koestler is careful not to assert this, and neither do we. The Jewish cause is too important to be so ill-served…

Koestler highlights the fact that the ruling Labour Party is failing in all its commitments to the Jewish people. It must be noted that the LP, while intelligently and firmly supporting the most arduous struggle for the salvation of devastated, weakened and threatened England, shows, by its foreign policy, a singular mediocrity in a variety of serious circumstances and thus alienates much sympathy in the world. Its attitude toward the Palestine issue, in reality determined by old colonialist interests and aggravated by a military and bureaucratic personnel of the worst kind, is scandalous. We will note, moreover, that the British military authorities in Italy have recently handed over to the Russian political police several groups of Russian refugees guilty only of fleeing tyranny.[10] We will note, finally, that the LP’s political incapacity caused the failure of the international socialist conference in Zurich, foolishly favoring the manoeuvres of the pseudo-socialist, subservient, police-state regimes of Poland, Yugoslavia, Romania...[11]

The Socialist Leader, organ of the Independent Labour Party (London), soberly points out that the Muslims of India have forced the partition of the country into two states, and that such partition weakens them and even risks pitting them against each other. They got Pakistan. In Palestine, on the contrary, the Muslims oppose a territorial division! Inconsistency? This word would be indulgent. Let us note that from Karachi to Casablanca the Islamic world, governed by reactionary elements whose mentality seems to have stopped in the tenth century of our era, provides the most striking demonstrations of a political immaturity that is all too dangerous... Pakistan’s independence is being inaugurated with the massacres of Hindus and the kidnapping of Hindu women (by the tens of thousands). And let's turn to the information published by N[ew] Y[ork]'s The New Leader.NL correspondent M[ark] Alexander summarily reports his impressions of a trip from Istanbul to Cairo. He notes the extraordinary propaganda effort of the USSR in the Muslim countries and the strangulation of the freedom of press in the Arab countries which are members of the U[nited] N[ations] and in Turkey,[12] where one must nevertheless note a slight improvement in the situation... In Iraq some twenty newspapers have been suppressed during the last two years, including three Communist sheets, but no one of the fascist sheets! In Syria the director of the Reuter Agency has been sentenced to six months in prison and a heavy fine for disrespecting the president of the republic! In Lebanon, half of the newspapers in Arabic, French and Armenian have just been suppressed, and the correspondents of the Reuter Agency and the Palestine Post have been expelled. What a happy republic! In Egypt eleven journalists have just been arrested for criticizing the attitude of the Egyptian delegation to the UN, and persecution of the press is constant. What a happy kingdom! In Palestine there is a censorship of the press in the most insidious form. Every newspaper has a censor in its editorial office and incurs various penalties if it allows itself to publish anything about ‘debatable subjects’, e.g. about the Nazi Mufti in Jerusalem and the British regime. It is forbidden to call a Nazi war criminal, antisemite, proven accomplice of Hitler-Himmler-Streicher, by his proper name! In Saudi Arabia there is only one newspaper, that of the government.[13] Thus everything is going on very well...

[1] ‘L’antisémitisme’, a two-page French-language typescript, undated and unsigned. It is kept in an untitled dossier containing other short texts on anarchism, Trotskyism, etc., that remained at the draft stage. The French original was published for the first time in V. Serge, L’extermination des Juifs de Varsovie et autres textes sur l’antisémitisme, Paris: Joseph K., 2011, pp. 89-91.

[2] On 25 July 1918 the Council of People's Commissars of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic adopted a ‘Decree on the Struggle against Antisemitism and Anti-Jewish Pogroms’, appearing in Izvestiya No. 160 of 30 July. That struggle, however, was partially unsuccessful insofar as antisemitism periodically resurfaced in Soviet Russia, particularly in the Red Army during the Civil War and the Russo-Polish War. See especially Nicolas Werth, ‘Dans l’ombre de la Shoah: Les pogromes des guerres civiles russes (1918-1921)’,Revue d’Histoire de la Shoah, No. 189, July-December 2008, pp. 319-57; Oleg Budnitskii,Russian Jews Between the Reds and the Whites, 1917-1920, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012; and Brendan McGeever,Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. A new and more substantial wave of ‘Soviet’ antisemitism gained momentum again in the 1930s, during the Stalinist period.

[3] Besides the classic work of Norman Cohn, Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion [1967], London: Serif, 2005, on the history and worlwide impact of that book see in particular Hadassa Ben-Itto,The Lie that Wouldn’t Die: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, London: Valentine Mitchell, 2005; Stephen Eric Bronner,A Rumor About the Jews: Reflections on Antisemitism and The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000; Esther Webman (ed.),The Global Impact of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion: A Century-Old Myth, London: Routledge, 2011; and Michael Hagemeister,The Perennial Conspiracy Theory: Reflections on the History of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, London: Routledge, 2022.

[4] On this specific aspect, see Pierre-André Taguieff, Hitler, les Protocoles des Sages de Sion et Mein Kampf: Antisémitisme apocalyptique et conspirationnisme, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2002; and Randall L. Bytwerk, ‘Believing inInner Truth’: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in Nazi Propaganda, 1933–1945’,Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Vol. 29, No. 2, Fall 2015, pp. 212-29.

[5] ‘La question juive’, a two-page French-language typescript from the Victor Serge’s archives in Mexico City, now in the Victor Serge Papers at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library Repository, New Haven (Connecticut), Box 5, Folder 260, Call Number GEN MSS 238, Series II. It was translated into Spanish and published in Babel. Revista de arte y crítica, Vol. 6, No. 26, Santiago de Chile, March-April 1945, pp. 61-4. These are the answers to a questionnaire that the magazine had sent to various writers ahead of the publication of that issue, specifically devoted to the Jewish question. The three questions devised by Babel are reproduced here in italics. The French original of Serge’s answers has been published in V. Serge,L’extermination des Juifs de Varsovie…, cit., pp. 84-8, but the editor of that book (Jean Rière) was unable to reproduce the questions as he did not find that issue ofBabel. That Chilean magazine was edited, under the pseudonym of Enrique Espinoza, by an Argentinian leftist intellectual of Russian origins, Samuel Glusberg (1898-1987). He had visited Trotsky in Mexico in 1938, became a Trotskyist sympathizer, and subsequently started a correspondence with Trotsky himself and with Jean van Heijenoort (see Nicolás Miranda,Historia del trotskysmo chileno 1929-1964, Santiago de Chile: Ediciones Clase contra Clase, 2000, pp. 29-37). On Serge’s collaboration with the magazine, see Claudio Albertani, ‘“A la sombra de los nopales crueles”’: Victor Serge, América Latina y la revistaBabel, Revista de Humanidades de Valparaiso, Vol. II, No. 4, 2nd semester 2014, pp. 7-20.

[6] On 27 September 1940 Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and imperial Japan had signed in Berlin the Tripartite Pact, a military-political agreement that established the so-called ‘Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis’. In the midst of World War II, it recognized their respective spheres of influence within the framework of the ‘new world order’: Europe to Germany and Italy, and the Far East to Japan. As far as the latter was concerned, the pact utterly clashed with Hitler’s original racist dogma of the inferiority of all non-Aryan peoples.

[7] ‘Opinions et faits sur la question juive’, a two-page French-language typescript, undated and signed ‘S.’, so far unpublished in any languages, from the Archives of the Centro Vlady at the Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de México, in Mexico City, Fondo Victor Serge, file 10, dossier 106. Another copy is to be found in the Victor Serge Papers at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library Repository, New Haven (Connecticut), Box 4, Folder 234, Call Number GEN MSS 238, Series II.

[8] The Stalinophilia of that journal had already surfaced during the second half of the 1930s, e.g when its editor Kingsley Martin refused to let one of his journalists review Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed and to publish George Orwell’s famous article ‘Spilling the Spanish Beans’ because he harshly criticized of the Stalinist repression of the anarchists and thePartido Obrero de Unificación Marxista carried out by the Stalinists after the May Days of 1937 in Barcelona. See Bashir Abu-Manneh, Fiction of the New Statesman, 1913-1939, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2011, pp. 167-71. Such orientation softened during the Nazi-Soviet pact (August 1939 to June 1941), but was resumed immediately after the German attack against the Soviet Union, when Stalin became a military ally of Great Britain.

[9] A. Koestler, ‘Letter to a Parent of a British Soldier in Palestine’, The New Statesman and Nation, 16 August 1947, pp. 126-27.

[10] A reference to the highly controversial Operation Keelhaul, which, on the basis of the 1945 Yalta agreements, provided for the forced repatriation to the USSR of the Russian POWs interned in various Italian prison camps after the end of World War II. Beginning in August 1946, the operation ended in May 1947. See Julius Epstein, Operation Keelhaul: The Story of Forced Repatriation from 1944 to the Present, New Greenwich: The Devin-Adair Company, 1973; Nicholas Bethell,The Last Secret: Forcible Repatriation to Russia 1944-7, London: André Deutsch Limited, 1974; and Nikolai Tolstoy,Victims of Yalta: The Secret Betrayal of the Allies 1944-1947, New York: Pegasus Books, 1977. Since the overwhelming majority of these Russian prisoners had fought in the ranks of the Nazi army or collaborated with theWehrmacht, it is clearly wrong to argue – as Serge did – that they were merely refugees ‘guilty only of fleeing tyranny’.

[11] At that conference, held from 6 to 9 June 1947, the British Labour Party had supported the German social-democracy’s ‘nationalist’ refusal to enter a ‘united front’ with the German CP. Having been invited to attend the conference as observers, SPD delegates met a fierce opposition from Eastern European socialists, especially the Poles, on that specific point. Although backing the SPD, the LP acted behind the scenes in the opposite sense for fear of a final break with the Easterners. The Labour delegation ‘appears to have pressured the Swiss to abstain on the vote, helping to deny the SPD a two-third majority’, thus objectively favouring the pro-communist Eastern European socialists. Moreover, while approving in principle the idea of rebuilding a socialist International, LP representatives had opposed its immediate proclamation as ‘premature’. See Talbot C. Imlay, The Practice of Socialist Internationalism. European Socialists and International Politics, 1914-1960, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018, pp. 286-88.

[12] The United Nations was set up in San Francisco on 24 October 1945. The following Arab countries joined it from the beginning: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. When Serge drafted these lines, the UN had received Iraq’s adherence on 21 December 1945. Pakistan and Yemen became UN members on 30 September 1947. Turkey had joined right from the start.

[13] For a survey of the situation of the press in Arab countries between the mid-19th century and the mid-20th century, see Ami Ayalon, The Press in the Arab Middle East: A History, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, pp. 109-37.

Power, Politics, and Personification

Toward a Critique of Postone’s Theory of Antisemitism

Neil Levi

This essay offers an immanent critique of Moishe Postone’s theory of antisemitism, arguably among the most influential such theory of the past forty years.[1] Postone’s entire oeuvre is dedicated to the proposition that power in capitalist societies does not reside with agents but in a system of abstract domination. He explains modern antisemitism as what happens when people do not recognize the abstract nature of that system and instead hold that there must be someone—the Jews—in charge of things, responsible for all they fear and suffer. This phenomenon he proposes we understand as a form of fetishised anticapitalism.


This piece is being made available as a preprint edition of the double-volume Marxism and the Critique of Antisemitism special issue of Historical Materialism. Further additions will still be made before then. The final published version of this text will be made available on the Brill website in the coming months. We ask that citations refer to the Brill edition.All Illustrations are by Natalia Podpora.


At the broadest level, what follows is simply an examination of what Postone means by each of the terms of his theory—modern, antisemitism, fetishised, anti-capitalism—and the implications of his particular understanding and uses of each. I contend that Postone’s theory rests on a complex, often ambiguous set of conceptual constructions. I begin with his definitions. While Postone sometimes distinguishes antisemitism among racisms, his theory rests on a categorical distinction of antisemitismfrom racism. This distinction, I suggest, makes it difficult for him to explain satisfactorily the political structure of right-wing and particularly National Socialist antisemitism. Instead, Postone focuses on the historical-epistemological: he wants to say that antisemitism is a matter of how some people think about and explain the world, but more, it is a matter of how the worldappears to them. The second part of this essay examines how he tries to make that case. Postone appeals directly to ‘Marx’s concept of the fetish’[2] but his own version of the fetish differs significantly from Marx’s. I suggest that the changes he rings on fetishism bring his conception of it closer to the structure of projection. This prepares the ground for the analogies Postone draws between the antisemitic image of Jewish power and the ‘abstract dimension of the value form’. But Postone needs more than an analogy. His observation that the Jews personify certain aspects of capitalist modernity is compelling, but he cannot convincingly explain personification as the direct result of how capitalism appears. For that he needs a different mode of explanation and a different conceptual apparatus.

I then turn to the thread that runs through practically all Postone’s writing on antisemitism. Postone develops his theory from an account of what he calls the ‘qualitative specificity’ of modern antisemitism, which is in turn derived from the singular features of the Nazi extermination of Europe’s Jews (extermination is in turn distinguished from mass murder and genocide).[3] Having staked so much on specificity Postone nevertheless argues that in the postwar period the same fetishised misrecognition and ‘pattern’ of thought is directed by left-wing ‘neo-anti-imperialism’ at quite different kinds of object—the US, Israel, and Zionism.[4] I argue that Postone’s own strictness about definitions mean he cannot collapse ‘neo-anti-imperialism’ into National Socialism, and show that Postone’s most rigorous formulations acknowledge key distinctions between modern antisemitism proper and its purported descendants.

In the final part of the essay, I argue that Postone’s notion of anti-capitalism contains a crucial ambiguity: sometimes it refers to explicit, conscious opposition to certain aspects of capitalism, which are mistakenly taken for all of capitalism; sometimes it refers to an implicit,unconscious opposition to all of capitalismand its social, political, and historical consequences. This becomes most evident when we consider one of Postone’s key claims: that his theory marks an advance on previous theories of antisemitism because his alone explains how the Jews were seen as the power behind both capitalism and communism. Pivotal in his framing of the question, communism disappears from his answer—and along with it, a fuller account of the political dimensions of modern antisemitism.Had Postone paid more attention to the distinction between the two forms of anti-capitalism, he would, I suggest, have found himself compelled to give a richer theoretical account of the place of abstraction in the distinctively political subjectivity and threat that obsess the right-wing variant of modern antisemitism. That task might, in turn, have drawn his attention toward contemporary Islamophobia, rather than (or as well as) criticism of the US, as significantly redolent of—while far from identical with—crucial aspects of the modern antisemitic imaginary.

The most obvious reason to grapple with Postone now lies in the profoundly fraught place of antisemitism in the contemporary political climate. On the one hand, there are myriad indications of antisemitism’s resurgence. Think, to take only the most obvious examples, of the spread of the fantasy of the Great Replacement, invoked by a distressing number of perpetrators of mass shootings as well as the white supremacists who rallied in Charlottesville in August 2017; the January 6, 2021 rioters’ displays of neo-Nazi symbols and antisemitic slogans; statistics suggesting a significant rise in antisemitic incidents; and the emergence of the QAnon conspiracy theory. Such events and phenomena make Postone’s observation that modern antisemitism ‘becomes virulent during structural, political, and cultural crisis’ seem all too timely, the search for answers all the more pressing.[5]

On the other hand, the very definition and extension of the concept of antisemitism has become a site of intense political contestation. Legal and cultural conflicts over the IHRA and BDS are only the most pointed instances of a broader and hardly symmetrical struggle over criticism of the state of Israel. It is in this respect that a certain reading of Postone has been incontestably influential on the German left, particularly for the Anti-Germans. Recent German laws and cultural controversies indicate that the views of the Anti-Germans have attained a certain cultural and political hegemony in the very nation their name claims to denounce.

My engagement with Postone seeks to clarify and parse the terms of the explanation he offers for why and how antisemitism emerges, and to respond to certain widespread interpretations and uses of his ideas. These goals distinguish my approach from other recent criticism of Postone. Both Karl Reitter and Michael Sommer take Postone to task for his use of the conceptual opposition of the abstract and concrete, and both are scathing on what they think Postone gets wrong about Marx and about German antisemitism. These are powerful, often convincing essays that share some points of overlap with mine (for example, Sommer too is struck by Postone’s use of analogy). They remain, however, largely external and polemical. One can imagine them leaving Postone unmoved since in Time, Labor, and Social Domination he provides, as it were, his own Marx, reinterpreted and critically reconstructed. Asking if his theory can satisfy its own criteria might provide both a sterner test and a more useful one, offering not only a critique but also a possible reconstruction of Postone himself. I continue to find some of Postone’s questions and observations about the structure of the modern antisemitic imaginary worth serious consideration. What I wrestle with here is how he arrives at his answers.


Postone assumes that if you want to understand the singular fate of Europe’s Jews you need to examine the distinctive features of the kind of prejudice directed toward them and derive your explanation from those features. Having identified the key distinguishing features of antisemitism, antisemitism then becomes, for the purposes of Postone’s theory and for many who follow him, exclusively identified with those distinguishing features. But the distinguishing features are not necessarily the only relevant features. Focusing exclusively on distinguishing features not only has unintended ideological consequences but weakens both the historical explanation of antisemitism and our ability to understand how it might manifest in the present.

Postone sets out to capture what he called modern antisemitism’s ‘qualitative specificity’, a specificity that is manifest in turn in the historical distinctiveness of the Nazi extermination of the Jews.[6] He locates the distinctiveness of antisemitism in the ‘degree’ and ‘quality of power attributed to the Jews’. Where the power attributed to racial others is, for Postone, ‘usually concrete—material or sexual—the power of the oppressed (as repressed) of the “Untermenschen”’ the power attributed to the Jews by modern antisemitism is ‘mysteriously intangible, abstract and universal;[7] and where all other powers attributed to racial others is potential, Jewish power is believed to be real and dangerous.[8] Moreover, according to Postone:

This power does not usually appear as such, but must find a concrete vessel, a carrier, a mode of expression. Because this power is not bound concretely, is not “rooted,” it is of staggering intensity and is extremely difficult to check. It stands behind phenomena, but is not identical with them. Its source is therefore hidden—conspiratorial. The Jews represent an immensely powerful, intangible, international conspiracy.[9]

Postone rests his theory on a crucial analogy: the properties of the power attributed to the Jews—abstractness, intangibility, universality, mobility, not appearing directly but finding a concrete carrier— are, he says, ‘all [also] characteristics of the value dimension of the social forms analyzed by Marx’.[10] Postone argues that for the modern antisemitic imagination the Jews personify ‘the intangible, destructive, immensely powerful international domination of capital [as a social form].[11] Modern antisemitism needs to be understood as a ‘particularly pernicious fetish form’ that ‘becomes virulent during structural, political, and cultural crisis’.[12] It ‘revolts against history as constituted by capitalism, misrecognized as a Jewish conspiracy’.[13] This is the core of Postone’s theory, which does not seem to change significantly over time. Postone’s later writings will, however, make much of two further, related claims: first, that as a revolt against capitalism, antisemitism can appear ‘antihegemonic and anti-global’ and ‘hence emancipatory’[14]; second, that the Jews are seen as opposed to all of human existence. Postone refers to ‘modern anti-Semitism’s central element—the idea of the Jews as a world historical threat to life’.[15] He observes that ‘[a]ntisemitism then, does not treat the Jews as members of a racially inferior group who should be kept in their place (violently if necessary) but as constituting an evil destructive power – an antirace opposed to humanity. Within this Manichean worldview the struggle against the Jews is a struggle for human emancipation. Freeing the world involves freeing it from the Jews. Extermination (which should not be conflated with mass murder) is a logical consequence of this Weltanschauung’.[16]

Postone’s notion of particularly modern antisemitism rests on a claim about both its historical singularity—something new breaks through in the Nazi extermination—and its historical continuity, since modern antisemitism’s ‘emergence presupposed’ and shares the distinctive features oflongue durée antisemitism.[17] The examples Postone gives of the distinctive ‘degree of power attributed to the Jews’ are worth closer attention. He lists: ‘to kill God, unleash the Bubonic Plague, and, more recently, introduce capitalism and socialism’.[18] One of these things is not like the others. In the first two the Jews do not simply possess a particular kind of power but use it to kill, first the Christian divinity, then the Christian community. ‘Introducing’ capitalism and socialism is not of the same order unless it too is perceived as a mortal threat to some form of life.

In other words, I think Postone under-interprets his historical examples. Their common features become more conspicuous if you consider the list’s most surprising omission: the blood libel. The blood libel refers to the fantasy, originating in Western Europe in the thirteenth century, that Jews murdered Christian children and used their blood to make unleavened bread for Passover. The historian Gavin Langmuir argues that by virtue of itshostile attribution to Jews of unreal characteristics and actions that no one has ever observed, the blood libel marks the historical origin of antisemitism proper, as opposed to anti-Jewish prejudice.[19] In the fantasy of the blood libel, the Jews, perhaps unusually, do not necessarily possess any more power than anyone else, but use what capacities they do have to carry out acts that reveal a dedication to inhuman laws, rituals, and practices that present a mortal threat to the security and reproduction of the Christian community. This makes clearer what Postone’s other examples oflongue durée antisemitism already show: that antisemitism is not just a theory of how much power the Jews have, but always also a theory of what the Jewsdo, what those actions reveal about who they are, and why action must be taken against them.

Let’s also note, in passing, that the form this threat takes is not arbitrary, but bears a significant relationship to both Jewish and Christian religious practice. As Langmuir points out, the blood libel transforms the rituals of Passover into an inverted form of the Eucharist. It develops, he says, at precisely the moment the Christian Church in Western Europe is debating the ontological status of the Eucharist: are Christians consuming the real body and blood of Christ? The blood libel, for Langmuir, displaces and resolves these questions for the source community, by imagining that even the Jews, who officially do not recognise Christ’s resurrection, show through their actions that they ultimately believe in it. It takes something real—the Passover Seder—and uses it as a surface on which a fantasy solution to problems and anxieties specific to the Christian community’s own, related practice can be made ‘visible’.

Postone uses these distinctive features to shear antisemitism off from racism. To be sure, Postone is sometimes ambiguous on the relationship between the two. In the early essays he distinguishes the kind of power attributed to the Jews from that of ‘other forms of racism’, suggesting antisemitism too is a form of racism. In 2003 he acknowledges that ‘racist and biologistic thinking’ ‘obviously was a very important dimension of antisemitism’, even as he immediately qualifies that ‘it alone also cannot account for the possibility of a program of total extermination’.[20] Yet precisely because such thinking cannot account for that possibility, modern antisemitism is ultimately categorically distinguished from what Postone calls ‘racism in general’ which he thinks always focuses on the concrete, physical, sexual properties of the other.[21]  It’s an oddly unhistorical and undialectical claim. Modern antisemitism can’t adequately be understood if it is categorically distinguished from racism. It’s not just that the distinction requires us to bracket the Nazi preoccupation with ‘racial science’ and the modern antisemitic obsession with Jewish bodies and sexuality. Most importantly, racist, biologistic thinking and classification are how Jews and others were identified as subject to separation, exclusion, dehumanisation, and elimination. In bracketing the question of racism, Postone has no way to explain how modern antisemites defined who was—and thus who would die as—a Jew.

The distinction between antisemitism and racism also takes no account of the range of projections and fantasies that racists have had about other peoples. The settler colonial fantasy of the Yellow Peril, even if it does not posit a conspiracy pulling the strings of world history, nevertheless imagines the Chinese to represent tremendous invisible power and danger. Iyko Day, drawing on Postone, observes that the ‘attributes of “abstractness, intangibility, universality, [and] mobility” that are associated with Jews are striking in their resonance with characteristic forms of Asian racialization in North America’.[22] Anti-Black racism may have sought to reduce Black people to their bodies, but it has also long interpreted those bodies as indices of a psyche, a culture, and a relationship to the world, as as J. Lorand Matory’s reflections on the historical origins of the concept of thefetish reveal. Postone teaches us to be critical of simplistic oppositions of the abstract and concrete, but there are moments when he seems unwittingly to reproduce them himself.

Too categorical a distinction between antisemitism and racism also makes it much harder to grasp how integrally modern antisemitism is related to other forms of modern racism. Proponents of the right-wing variant of modern antisemitism believe the Jews to use their power to bring about the destruction of white European races through cultural and sexual mixing. National Socialists in the interwar period claimed that the presence of Black soldiers, African art, and American jazz were all part of a Jewish program of what is often delicately translated as the ‘negroidisation’ of German culture. Contemporary antisemites appeal to the myth of the ‘Great Replacement’: in the US context Robert Bowers’ mass murder at the Tree of Life synagogue as a response to the HIAS support of Muslim immigration, and the Charlottesville white supremacists’ chant of ‘Jews will not replace us’ as they sought to keep standing statues commemorating the Confederacy’s defence of slavery are the best-known examples.

Postone believes that the modern antisemitic ‘struggle’ is in the name of ‘human emancipation’. But reactionary antisemites, both modern and contemporary, regard leftist projects of emancipating all of humanity aspart of the danger represented by the Jews. National Socialists sought the emancipation ofspecific peoples—the race, the nation, theVolk—from Jewish domination, in order to be freethemselves to dominate, colonise, and exploit others—principally Slavic peoples.[23] Contemporary right-wing antisemites do not anticipate a war of all against the Jews that will result in the emancipation of humanity, but a war of peoples, civilisations, races. Emancipation is not the goal for these modern antisemites; it’s a step to regain or maintain domination. The place of the concept of emancipation in the antisemitic imaginary needs to be thought relationally; we need to know who is to be emancipated and who isn’t, as well as what those who are emancipated will be freed to do and to whom.

Ironically, there are other contexts in which Postone himself poses just these questions. Consider his reflections on how to evaluate the use of political violence by anti-colonial social movements, where he proposes

a fundamental difference between movements that do not target civilians randomly (such as the Viet Minh and Viet Cong and the ANC) and those that do (such as the IRA, al-Qaeda, and Hamas). This difference is […] profoundly political; a relation exists between the form of violence and the form of politics. […][T]he sort of future society and polity implicitly expressed by the political praxis of militant social movements that distinguish military from civilian targets differs from that implied by the praxis of movements that make no such distinction. The latter tend to be concerned with identity. In the broadest sense they are radically nationalist, operating on the basis of a friend/foe distinction that essentializes a civilian population as the enemy and closes off the possibility of future coexistence.[24]

Postone’s account of the IRA, al-Qaeda, and Hamas is, needless to say, congruent with the actions of National Socialism. Postone might have responded that the homology between National Socialism and identitarian anti-colonial social movements is precisely his point; mine is that such a homology refutes the idea that modern antisemitism strives for human emancipation.


The deeper reason Postone overlooks in his theory of antisemitism political structures he sees clearly in other contexts resides in his use of the concept of fetishism. Postone sees modern antisemitism as a worldview with a political, agentive interpretation of what are, properly understood, abstract historical processes: it mistakes structure for agency, economics for politics. These are, for Postone, cognitive errors produced by the way capitalism ‘appears’. He thus removes modern antisemitism from the realm of politics and locates it in the realm of perception. But his conception of the antisemite’s fetishism is idiosyncratic. Where Marx’s conception of fetishism is dialectical (social relations between things, thingly relations between people). Postone’s, in contrast, is dualistic, its basic premise, apparently building on Marx’s analysis of the relative and equivalent forms of value, externalization. Moreover, for Postone, fetishism is fundamentally a matter of perception and belief, and, most importantly, a perception ofwhat is and is not capitalist. It through an account of how capitalism presents itself as capitalism that Postone wants to explain the structure of antisemitic misrecognition.

On the face of it, Postone offers a compelling observation that’s perfectly in keeping with the concept of fetishism: the antisemite ascribes to the Jew quasi-magical powers that are in fact socially produced. Etienne Balibar parses Marxian fetishism as not a false perception, but rather the way in which reality cannot but appear.[25] When Postone interprets Marx, he also construes fetishism in terms of appearance. In Time, Labor, and Social Domination he sees fetishism where social relations in capitalism appear ‘objective’ and ‘transhistorical’,[26] where social actors are ‘bound to the mystified forms of appearance of capitalism’s essence’.[27] But if for Marx, fetishism requires the invisibility of labour, for Postone it means making too much of it, failing to understand its historicity: ‘The appearance of labor’s mediational character in capitalism as physiological labor is the fundamental core of the fetish of capitalism’: ‘because the underlying relations of capitalism are mediated by labor, hence are objectified, they appear not to be historically specific and social but transhistorically valid and ontologically grounded forms’.[28]

In order to explain how Jews are seen to personify capitalism, Postone appeals to ‘the way in which capitalist social relations present themselves’.[29] Heposits that the ‘dialectical tension of value and use value in the commodity’ must be ‘materially externalized in the value form, where it appears "doubled" as money (the manifest form of value) and the commodity (the manifest form of use-value).’[30] For Postone, then, fetishism does not arise from commodities possessing both use value and value, but rather from a structural disavowal of that fact, which in turn requires an externalization of the disavowed element: ‘The effect of this externalization is that the commodity, although it is a social form expressing both value and use-value, appears to contain only the latter, i.e., appears as purely material and "thingly"; money, on the other hand, then appears to be the sole repository of value, i.e., as the manifestation of the purely abstract, rather than as the externalized manifest form of the value dimension of the commodity itself.’[31] Thus Postone holds that commodity fetishism producesa dualistic conception of capitalism instead of a properly dialectical one, so that ‘capitalist social relations do not appear as such and, moreover, present themselves antinomically, as the opposition of the abstract and concrete’.[32] ‘And, moreover’: the claim about antinomic presentation is crucial. Postone will even refer to an ‘antinomic fetish’.[33] This presentation leads to a fundamental misrecognition of capitalism, seeing only the abstract dimension as capitalist and producing forms of anti-capitalism that ‘tend to perceive capitalism, and that which is specific to that social formation, only in terms of the manifestations of the abstract dimension of the antinomy. The existent concrete dimension is then positively opposed to it as the “natural” or ontologically human, which stands outside of the specificity of capitalist society’.[34]

This splitting, disavowal, and externalization strike me as resembling nothing so much as psychic projection. While hardly qualitatively specific to it, such projection is a fundamental operation of the antisemitic imaginary. That does not mean that it cannot also govern the logic of how things appear under capitalism, but it does suggest that the analogy Postone discovers between the commodity fetish and the distinctive powers the antisemite attributes to the Jews are significantly prepared by his revision of Marx. This may also help us grasp how Postone comes to mediate the psychoanalytic and the historico-epistemological levels of explanation in subsequent moments of his argument.

Postone appears to hold that just as the commodity is a use value that must have a corresponding externalised material manifestation of its exchange value (money), so too must every apparent concrete use value have its corresponding externalization, and that the Jews are one such externalization, or perhaps the limit case thereof. That may sound strange, but how else to read the following, from his 1986 essay ‘Anti-Semitism and National Socialism’?

Certain forms of anti-capitalist discontent became directed against the manifest abstract dimension of capital personified in the form of the Jews, not because the Jews were consciously identified with the value dimension, but because, given the antinomy of the abstract and concrete dimensions, capitalism appeared that way. … The overcoming of capitalism and its negative social effects became associated with the overcoming of the Jews.[35]

This complex formulation is crucial to Postone’s theory. It is both a claim about how capitalism appears andwhat appears to be capitalism. Postone seems to be claiming that capitalism presented itself in such a way that itactually appeared to be personified by the Jews, even if it did so at some level other than that of conscious awareness. I think Postone eventually recognised how strange a claim this was, how much it seemed to justify the antisemitic worldview (we can’t help it, that’s how the world looks!) and therefore modified it accordingly. Thus in his 2003 ‘The Holocaust and the Trajectory of the Twentieth Century’ he retains the opening assertion about the Jews personifying the manifest abstract dimension of capitalism, but says anti-capitalist discontent was directed against the Jews ‘not because the Jews were consciously identified with the value dimension, but because, given the antinomy of the abstract and concrete dimensions, capitalism appeared only in its abstract guise, which was identified with the Jews.’[36] Capitalism appears personified in the form of the Jews becomes capitalism appears as its abstract dimension, which was identified with (presumably still not consciously) the Jews. Crucially, the antisemitic element is no longer intrinsically connected to how capitalism appears. The identification of the Jews with the abstract dimension of capitalism is not now a matter of how capitalism appears, but of whatever operations produce that identification. This is more plausible—and concedes far less to the antisemitic worldview—but it does so at a cost, since the revised formulation no longer claims to directly explain in terms of fetishism how the Jews come to personify capitalism.

This explanatory gap draws attention to a perhaps more obvious lacuna in Postone’s account. Postone wants to say that the antisemite too is fooled by appearances, seeing labour as useful, concrete, and thingly, while seeing money, finance, and interest as abstract. But his theory also rests on the premise that the power attributed to the Jews isinvisible: mobile, and abstract, never appearing directly. So while modern antisemitism might rest on a fetishised misrecognition of capitalist relations, on Postone’s own account the antisemite cannot simply be someone who mistakes appearance for reality; they must be someone whobelieves—like Postone’s Marxian social theorist—that how things appear is not how things really are, and who therefore seeks atheory that answers the question of what or who is behind the incomprehensible web of dynamic forces that transform and upend their lives. The identification of the abstract dimension of capitalism with the Jew might be something thatemerges from a kind of fetishism of the concrete and tangible, but even for Postoneit cannot ultimately be fetishism as such, cannot be the result of how things cannot but appear, since the antisemitic theory always requires a further interpretive step that some make and others do not. There are antisemites, but not everyone is an antisemite. There’s nothing socially necessary about theidentification of a particular group of people with particular features of capitalist economic relations. Indeed, though I won’t pursue the thought here, Postone’s appeal to the history that modern antisemitism ‘builds on’ implicitly concedes that there is also no modern antisemitism without the production, circulation, and reception of ideas, rumours, and theories that predate and can’t be explained solely by those relations—the realm that Ernst Bloch, among others, insisted was decisive also for the understanding of fascism. We might also recall that when Postone first proposed his theory, it was presented as an effort ‘to elucidate a historical-epistemological frame of reference within which further psychological specifications can take place’.[37] The concept of personification might mark the place where the historical-epistemological frame of reference begins to require such specifications.

The enemy embodies our own question. Carl Schmitt put this phrase to work in his own way, and we can use in ours. Every critical theory of antisemitism is a theory of the enemy, where your own question concerns what you think most contributes to the catastrophes of modernity in general and the Nazi Judeocide in particular.[38] For Zygmunt Bauman, theorist of liquid modernity, the antisemite could not bear what didn't fit into established categories. Theodor Adorno’s antisemite projected and could neither recognise nor reflect on the fact that he was projecting. These are theories in which antisemites are enemies who act where they should reflect, react when they should think.[39]

For Postone, the antisemite is not the one who does not think, but the one who thinks too much, from false premises and in an erroneous direction. We might say that Postone’s antisemite is a bad social theorist, someone with the wrong account of the right thing. This is Postone’s variation on the notion of antisemitism as the socialism of fools. Yes, capitalism is the problem, but you need to know what capitalism is—and according to Postone, because of how it appears to you, you probably don’t. The real danger, for him, is to think that you’re on the side of the oppressed, that there is a class to be emancipated and a class to emancipate them from—a distraction, for him, from doing away with an entire system of social relations. For Postone, the enemy is the one who thinks there’s an enemy; the one who thinks solving the problem of capitalism’s domination of life on this planet is a matter of distinguishing friend from foe, knowingwho the oppressed and the oppressors are. His frequent references to the Manicheanism of the antisemitic imagination should be understood in this context. In part that’s because he thinks capitalism is a matter of abstract structures of domination that weall need to be liberated from, and in part that’s because he, like many thinkers associated withWertkritik and the New Marx Reading, thinks that under capitalism, if you are someone who thinks there’s an enemy, a personification of capitalism’s evils, that enemy will inevitably and unavoidably tend to be the Jews. Antisemitism thus, for these writers, warrants special political and interpretive attention that other racisms without such profound relations to capitalism do not.

Neo-Anti-Imperialism: The Second Analogy

Those who hold that contemporary capitalism inevitably produces antisemitism also cast a suspicious eye on any anti-capitalism that does not recognise capitalism as abstract domination and instead identifies it as the work of specific political actors. They see such arguments as inevitably lapsing into antisemitism, either directly or structurally. But they also invite or risk a very particular kind of argumentative slippage: if modern antisemitism is fetishised anti-capitalism, will all arguments that come to be identified as fetishised anti-capitalism be read as structurally antisemitic?

These questions go to the heart of what Postone believes his theory of antisemitism provides: not just an explanation of the distinctiveness of what broke through in the Nazi extermination of Europe’s Jews but also a counter-intuitive account of where this form of fetishised anti-capitalism can be found today. In all of his essays on antisemitism Postone claims that the inheritor of this fetishised worldview is, ironically, the anti-imperialism of the left. Left and right critiques of hegemony reveal, he says, ‘similar fetishized understandings of the world’.[40]‘At the heart of this neo-anti-imperialism is a fetishistic understanding of global development—that is, a concretistic understanding of abstract historical processes in political and agentive terms. The abstract and dynamic domination of capital has become fetishized on the global level as that of the United States, or, in some variants, as that of the United States and Israel. […] in many respects, this worldview recapitulates one of a century ago in which the subject positions of the United States and Israel were occupied by Britain and the Jews’.[41] Postone often remarks that if antisemitism was for August Bebel the socialism of fools, ‘[g]iven its subsequent development, it could also have been called the anti-imperialism of fools’[42]: ‘with the fading of a conceptual horizon of possible fundamental transformation the concretistic anti-imperialism of the New Left (fused with a concretistic form of antiglobalisation) began increasingly to recapitulate earlier antisemitic motifs’.[43] Contemporary anti-Zionism (which Postone reads as anti-imperialist) represents ‘a classically antisemitic version of anti- Zionism, of Israel and the Jews as constituting a powerful global demonic power’. [44] These motifs are symptoms of the left’s impoverished political imagination: ‘Emancipation no longer is imagined as the constitution of a new form of social life but in terms of the eradication of the sources of global evil – “Zionism” and the United States’.[45]

Postone’s claim that emancipation is only imagined as the destruction of the US and Zionism offers an astonishingly reductive view of the political imagination and motivations of the contemporary left. But of more interest than his sweeping generalisations are Postone’s substantive theoretical claims. If earlier I claimed that Postone’s theory of antisemitism rests on a crucial analogy, now we see it rests on two crucial analogies: first, the properties attributed to the Jews by modern antisemitism are the same as the properties of the abstract dimension of the value form; second, the kind of fetishised anti-capitalism that Postone sees as essential to National Socialism’s modern antisemitism can also be found on the ‘neo-anti-imperialist left’.

Are they really, even for Postone, the same kinds of fetishism? Are they really the same kinds of anti-capitalism? One sign that they are not is the basic methodological question Postone’s second analogy raises: how can he move from such a specific claim about the distinctive, even unique features of antisemitism to a comparison with such qualitatively different phenomena? In his second analogy there is nothing close to the specific account of the form of power Jews are imagined to wield. Nor could there be: whereas the power attributed to the Jews is, by Postone’s own definition, invisible, mysterious, and requiring a material carrier, nation states like the US, Britain, Israel, exercise hard and soft power visibly and directly, generally by means that are explicitly identified as their own, be they military, political, economic, or cultural. The second analogy omits the fundamentaltertium comparationis of the first. This is not to deny that the US and Israelare sometimes imagined to exert their power in precisely the way that the antisemite imagines the Jews to exert theirs, most notably when the Mossad is held to be responsible for the attacks of September 11, 2001. But such theories are, unsurprisingly, not just structurally but often substantively antisemitic: those who subscribe to this theory also believe that no Jews showed up for work at the World Trade Centre that day. In any event, such conspiracies theories do not seem to be what Postone has in mind. His concern is, rather, with the rhetoric and ideology, sympathies and antipathies of leftist social movements writ large, their psychoanalytic roots and their geopolitical implications.

By necessity, then, Postone takes a different path with this iteration of his theory than with modern antisemitism proper. As with modern antisemitism, he says fetishistic anti-capitalist critics of these nation states are in the thrall of a kind of Manicheanism or metaphysical demonization: the fantasy that there is one source of all the world’s problems and that the path to emancipation lies in eliminating it. Postone is particularly preoccupied by the perception of one nation state or ideology as the sole political actor on the world stage (‘[w]ithin this schema, there is only one actor in the world: the United States’[46]), to whose actions all other nations and other social groups can only react. This, he thinks, is the source of left apologism for identitarian anti-colonial social movements; his criteria for the evaluation of the use of political violence, which I discussed earlier, emerge in response to it. Also intrinsically connected to the Manichean vision of fetishised anti-capitalism is what he sees as an excessive affective investment in the conflicts in which that nation is involved. The connection to any Marxian notion of fetishism is, at this point in his argument, quite tenuous; it’s perhaps not an accident that Postone tends to address this investment in psychoanalytic terms.

While Postone wants to show that anti-imperialist criticism of the US and Israel ‘ironically recapitulates’[47] the ideology of a previous century ‘in which the subject positions occupied today by the United States and Israel in some forms of “antiglobalization” were occupied by Britain and the Jews,’ ultimately he cannot want toconflate such criticism with antisemitism, cannot help but distinguish between criticism of nation states and antisemitic fantasies about the Jews. This distinction seems to be registered in his remark on—what else?—’the conflation of British and, then, American hegemony with that of global capital, as well as the personification of the latter as the Jews’.[48] Note the terminological shift: not every conflation is a personification, let alone proof of antisemitism. This makes sense. If Postone had claimed that there was no difference between what’s directed at the US and Israel by anti-imperialists and what’s directed at the Jews by antisemites, how could he have explained the coexistence of different fetishised anti-capitalisms? There can only be so many sole political actors on the world stage at once, only so many single sources of global evil. Here it’s salient to recall that Postone’s theory was developed in a period when explicit antisemitism seemed a marginal, historically residual phenomenon. There is less reason to seek out coded expressions of structural antisemitism when the thing itself is on display for all to see.

Postone’s writing about this second analogy wrestles with how to think the relationship between structure and agency. On the one hand, he observes that capitalist social relations lead to domination by systems without agents, and yet many people search for agents to hold responsible, sometimes blaming the Jews or powerful nation states, for the consequences of the abstract historical processes. On the other hand, precisely because they are so aware of relations of domination, many on the left do not want to hold those they see as dominated responsible for their actions, preferring to see them as conditioned, even determined by those relations of domination, reacting rather than acting. Postone wants to correct both tendencies. As a result, his work can mirror the errors that concern him: he urges us not to blame the US or Israel for what capitalism does to all of us, but also not to blame imperialism when anti-colonialist groups commit acts of political violence, thus seeming to replace one apologetic ideology with another. Indeed, these kinds of arguments can make his work attractive to those who wish to condemn any criticism of the US and Israel as inevitably antisemitic and any contextual explanation of the actions of militant anti-colonial organisations as exculpatory. Yet while Postone draws parallels between the modern antisemitism of National Socialism and the neo-anti-imperialism of the left in some limited and sometimes flawed ways, he is nevertheless far more historically and conceptually nuanced in his critique of anti-imperialism, and far less inclined to be recruited for the defence of particular nation states, than those who cite him as an authority—particularly those writers affiliated with the ‘anti-German’ school—might lead one to believe.[49]

Postone’s extension of the claim about fetishised anti-capitalism from the Jews to nation states and nationalist ideologies has been taken to suggest that there is something antisemitic about any criticism of these nation states, his criticism of certain strands of anti-imperialist thought and action as a dismissal of anti-imperialist thought as such. But Postone rejects both views. His main criticism of the left was that by uncritically supporting anti-colonial movements and taking anti-imperialist positions it unwittingly became the dupe of what he didn’t hesitate to call imperialist rivalries. To be the duped in this way meant, for him, to fail to recognize when opposing the actions of one imperial nation drew you into the trap of uncritically supporting the interests of another. From Postone’s perspective the second Gulf War was an attempt to obstruct European and Chinese interests in the region, which made him wary of anti-war protests.[50] But it should also be clear that he would have had no truck with a dismissiveness of the very notion of imperialism that fell into this same uncritical trap. What do you gain by replacing the US or Israel with Iran as the sole source of global evil?[51] His despair about the direction of the left needs, in the final analysis, to be read as an expression of his persistent hope for a revival of a critical internationalism and leftist universalism that would overcome the dualisms of concrete and abstract, particular and universal.[52]

Put simply, Postone does not reject all criticism of the US and Israel as fetishised; instead, he rejects specifically fetishised criticism. In the same essays in which he denounces the collapse of the leftist political imagination into demonization, he nevertheless makes it clear that he thinks it is completely legitimate, even necessary, to criticise nation states forwhat they actually do. In his 2006 ‘History and Helplessness’ he no sooner notes the conflation of‘[t]he abstract and dynamic domination of capital’ with that of the US than he observes that ‘It goes without saying that the disastrous, imperial, and imperious character of the Bush administration has helped mightily in this conflation’.[53] In his 2017 ‘The Dualisms of Capitalist Modernity’ Postone does not object to ‘support for the Palestinian struggle for self- determination and criticisms of Israeli policies and institutions’ and remarks that ‘Israeli policies and actions can certainly account for very strong anti-Israel sentiments’. In the same essay he distinguishes ‘a reified conflation of the abstract and dynamic domination of global capital with the United States – or at times the United States and Israel’ from ‘a fundamental critique of American (or Israeli) policies and actions’.[54]

Postone insists on the importance of the distinction between the policies and actions of a global capitalist power and the abstract and dynamic domination of global capitalism itself. The problem is that he says little about just how to make that distinction. What do we do and say when the abstract and dynamic domination of global capital and the interests of particular nation states coincide? It is not an accident that Postone’s fetishistic anti-capitalists conflated Britain with capitalism a century ago, but eventually shifted their attention to the US. One of the purposes of the concepts of imperialism and colonialism is to allow us to describe, theorise, and parse the economic, political, cultural, and psychic effects of this coincidence.

Here it’s important to observe that Postone did not reject anti-imperialist and anti-colonial thought as such. If, as he says, antisemitism is the anti-imperialism of fools, then he must think there are other kinds of anti-imperialism, for those of us who do not want to be fools. Postone calls the Bush administration ‘imperialist’ and doesn't pause to qualify his use of the term. Rather than arguing, as Werner Bonefeld and others have, that the dialectically necessary corollary of anti-imperialism is support for national liberation movements, regardless of their politics, Postone historicises anti-imperialist thought, mourning what he sees as its contraction from an initial emancipatory universalist orientation into a narrower, identitarian concern with ‘resistance’ that he sees emerging in the wake of the collapse of the Fordist synthesis in the early 1970s.[55] None of this is to deny Postone’s often bilious critique of neo-anti-imperialism; it is, however, to suggest that he did not respond to what he saw as neo-anti-imperialism’s reifying and fetishised tendencies by reifying and fetishising anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism in turn.

Communism and Latent Anti-Capitalism

Postone’s argument about neo-anti-imperialism relies on anti-imperialism’s manifest anti-capitalism: the anti-imperialist opposes what is arguably a stage, expression, or instrument of capitalism itself. But to provide the kind of explanation he seeks, Postone’s argument about the paradigmatic case of modern antisemitism, the Nazi extermination of Europe’s Jews, rests on modern antisemitism’slatent anti-capitalism. These arguments operate at different explanatory levels. The appeal to latent anti-capitalism—the fetishistic anti-capitalist’s unconscious response to history as constituted by capitalism—is how Postone circumvents the distinctively political attributes of the modern antisemitic imaginary. If he’d given a more complex and mediated account, on his own terms, of the role that political, rather than economic, abstraction played in the antisemitic imaginary, particularly itsanti-communism, he would have been compelled to rethink his theory of how the modern antisemitic imaginary manifests itself in the present.

Postone asserts that one of the key distinguishing features of his theory of antisemitism, what distinguishes it from the work of predecessors such as Max Horkheimer, is that it explains how Jews could be held responsible for both capitalismand communism: ‘The problem with theories […]  which concentrate on the identification of the Jews with money and the sphere of circulation, is that they cannot account for the notion that the Jews constitute the power behind social democracy and communism’.[56] Postone observes, as we saw, that the Jews are believed to orchestrate ‘the range of social restructuring and dislocation resulting from rapid industrializationwith all its social ramifications’ including ‘the emergence of a large, increasingly organized proletariat’.[57] But his theoretical claim is that the Jews personify or are otherwise somehow identified with the abstract dimension of capitalism (money, banks, finance, circulation), misrecognised as capitalism as such. Or perhaps not. Here too Postone equivocates: ‘Capital itself—or what is understood as the negative aspect of capitalism—is understood only in terms of the manifest form of its abstract dimension: finance and interest capital’[58]. Capital itself, or just what is understood as the negative aspect? If just the negative aspect, in what sense are we still talking about anti-capitalism? Either way, modern antisemitism becomes fetishised anti-capitalism, with no reference to communism, let alone the phantasm of Judeo-Bolshevism. On the one hand, then, Postone says that modern antisemitism is an anti-capitalism that only understands half of what capitalism is. On the other hand, he says it is an anti-capitalism that includes both capitalismand its social, historical, and political consequences, ‘history as constituted by capitalism’,including the revolutionary effort to overthrow capitalism itself. How do ‘history as constituted by capitalism’ and ‘the social consequences of capitalism’, presumably including communism, come to be understood as identical with capitalism itself? The risk of conceptual conflation and confusion is all too apparent. It is as if the antisemite is both abad social theorist whose beliefs and actions express a fetishised misrecognition of capitalismand anexcellent social theorist, able—if this is what Postone has in mind—unconsciously to trace the political abstraction upon which communist revolution is predicated back to the abstract logic of exchange, even as he misrecognises that source as a Jewish conspiracy.

The Jews come to personify the abstract dimension of capitalist social relations, which is held to be the ultimate source of all abstraction in the modern world, including those forms of political abstraction that are trying to overcome capitalist social relations. This profound ambiguity in the theory makes it hard to decide what, if anything, would count as evidence against it. Postone draws attention to the manifest content of modern antisemitism, with a Nazi poster of Germany‘represented as a strong, honest worker—threatened in the West by a fat, plutocratic John Bull and in the East by a brutal, barbaric Bolshevik Commissar’, both of whom are puppets, with the strings held by ‘“the Jew”’, holding an emblematic place in his thought,[59] but also appears to want us to see its latent content as confirming the theory insofar as anti-communist rhetoric and action can be regarded as in some sense the product of capitalist abstraction. Or so I assume: Postone never spells out why antisemites hold the Jews responsible for both capitalism and communism. A theory in which modern antisemitism is presented as a form of anti-capitalism in which capitalism includes communism but excludes labour, commodities, factories, and technology needs to offer more of an explanation.

That Postone himself does not do so is especially frustrating given the centrality of National Socialism to his theory, his claim to have explained the ‘intrinsic connection’ between National Socialism and modern antisemitism.[60] (Here we might ask ourselves why Postone does not simply speak in the plural, of modern antisemitisms? Could it not be the case that the manifestations of antisemitism one finds on the left and the right have significantly different structures and emerge from different forms of anti-capitalism?) Focusing on the distinguishing features of modern antisemitism precisely in order to explain the historical singularity of the Nazi extermination demands reckoning far more directly with anti-Marxism and anti-communism. Simply put, Nazism was far more consistently and systematically anti-communist than anti-capitalist in ideology and action. The intellectual historian Ishay Landa, offering his own response to Postone, documents how rife Hitler’sMein Kampf is with references to Marxism, how few the references to capital and international finance. Landa reminds us that there was no Nazi program for the elimination of finance or ‘parasitic’ capital, just their appropriation, and that Nazi economist Gottfried Feder, whose distinction between creative and parasitic capitalism is frequently cited as proof of Nazism’s fetishised anti-capitalism, had been marginalised by the party by the mid 1930s.[61] Indeed, one might wonder why someone who distinguishes between good and bad forms of capitalism is considered anti-capitalist at all if the creative capitalists he praises are, even on his own terms, still capitalists. As we’ve seen, Postone builds this ambiguity into his theory without discussing its implications.

On the other hand, Landa notes, Marxism represented much that the Nazis actively opposed: emancipation and equality, revolt and revolution, the undoing of hierarchies, abolition of national borders, and dismantling of regimes of accumulation. Enzo Traverso offers a telling example in this context. In The Origins of Nazi Violence, he observes that the ‘contamination of political propaganda [about ‘Jewish Bolshevism’] by medical and epidemiological language was matched by a massive adoption of political metaphors on the part of scientists’ who called cancerous cells ‘anarchists’, ‘Bolsheviks’, and ‘breeding grounds of chaos and revolt’.[62] Despite the economic crisis of the early 1920s, there was no comparable adoption of financial metaphors, no Nazi obsession with cancer spreading and weakening the human body in the way rampant hyperinflation had weakened the German body politic. The line from ideology to action is correspondingly far more direct in the National Socialists’ anti-communism than in their ostensible anti-capitalism. It was communists and Soviet commissars, not bankers, who were sent to the camps along with Jews, Roma and Sinti, and homosexuals; Soviet soldiers, not those of the US and Britain, who, like Jews and Poles, were shot en masse without regard for international rules of war.[63]

To be sure, Postone acknowledged in his 1980 essay that National Socialism‘was virulently anti-Marxist and that the Nazis destroyed the organizations of the German working class’.[64] Yet he remained committed to seeing National Socialism as fetishising and glorifying labour. National Socialism and ‘traditional Marxism’ had, he thought, at least that much in common. This apparent affinity, however, obscures more than it reveals. Right-wing fetishisations of the worker need to be understood as propagandistic efforts to contain the revolutionary potential of the emancipation of labour. G. M. Tamás argues that interwar European fascism has to be grasped as a project to destroy the workers’ movement and prevent the rise of socialism in Europe, a project that was, he observes, completely successful.[65] Jordy Rosenberg recalls Ernst Bloch’s reading of fascism as absorbing and mimicking ‘the “libidinal surplus” of revolutionary communism’.[66] Postone might have parsed, rather than conflated, the distinct roles that ideas of labour and the worker played in the communist and fascist imaginaries and realities. But doing so might in turn have undermined his efforts to align modern antisemitism with his chief theoretical enemy, namely, the post-1967 anti-imperialist left.

We might, then, ask if Postone has things back to front, if the modern antisemite does not oppose communism as an abstract, levelling product of the abstract dimension of capitalism, but opposes capitalism only insofar as it produces undesirable political effects. National Socialists did not genuinely wish to abolish realms of economic life they saw as dominated by the Jews in order to emancipate humanity from them; they wished to control them themselves. The right-wing antisemite’s obsession is not with the abstract dimension of value misrecognised as all of capitalism, but with whatever social forces—be it money or an organised proletariat—threatens to undermine the sovereignty and integrity of the political entity with which he identifies: be it his nation, his race, Europe, or Christendom. He is not an anti-communist because he’s ‘really’ an anti-capitalist. He’s really, and far more decidedly, an anti-communist. Contemporary antisemites obsess over George Soros not just because he is a billionaire but because he uses his wealth to promote particular political goals. There are, after all, billionaires that antisemites admire, whose money they have no compunction about accepting in the furtherance of their aims. It was not concrete use value that the Nazis were after when they extracted gold from the corpses of Jews.[67]

The Nazi variant of modern antisemitism saw the Jews as the power behind both communism and capitalism. I have speculated that Postone might be taken to imply that the antisemite unconsciously understands the political abstraction of communism to emerge from the abstract dimensions of the value form, that this is what it means for the antisemite to hold the Jews responsible for ‘history as constituted by capitalism’. Here we must acknowledge that Postone does in fact see political abstraction as a ‘fatal’ addition to the association of Jews with economic abstraction—a necessary supplement for the Nazi extermination to take place. Yet despite the importance of anti-communism to the Nazi antisemitic imaginary he does not take the path we might have expected him to. It is here that we see most clearly the gap between the direction Postone takes his theory and where I think his own framing of the problem of antisemitism ought to have led him. Focusing on the contradictions he sees as distinctive of the European nation state, Postone construes that political abstraction solely in terms, once again, of the ‘double character’ of the commodity form, the externalised opposition between the abstract and the concrete that he sees reproduced in the divisions between state and civil society, citizen and person, equality before the law and concrete belonging (although Postone does not use the word belonging). Postone’s account is, I think, too dependent on a rather unmediated application of that opposition to the political realm. Most importantly, it leaves out too much of what qualitatively distinguishes the antisemitic image of Jewish political subjectivity, positing Jewish abstraction as the absence of shared, purportedly concrete attributes rather than as itself a concrete characteristic, a substantive relationship to a specific form of abstraction.

For Postone, the tension between abstract and concrete in the political sphere meant that (only?) in Europe:

the notion of the nation as a purely political entity, abstracted from the substantiality of civil society, was never fully realized. The nation was not only a political entity, it was also concrete, determined by a common language, history, traditions and religion. In this sense, the only group in Europe which fulfilled the determination of citizenship as a pure political abstraction, were the Jews following their political emancipation. They were German or French citizens, but not really Germans or Frenchmen. They were of the nation abstractly, butrarely concretely. They were, in addition, citizens of most European countries. Thequality of abstractness,characteristic not only of the value dimension in its immediacy, but also, mediately, of the bourgeois state and law, became closely identified with the Jews. In a period when the concrete became glorified against the abstract, against "capitalism" and the bourgeois state,this became a fatal association. The Jews were rootless, international and abstract. (My emphases)[68]

Postone undoubtedly captures an important element of how Jews were seen in early twentieth-century Europe. One thinks, in particular, of the identification of Jews with the Weimar Republic. Nevertheless, however much Postone might have remained attached to this passage, which appears in his 1980 essay ‘Anti-Semitism and National Socialism’ and completely unchanged in ‘The Holocaust and the Trajectory of the Twentieth Century’ from 2003, it is a strange argument. The kind of political abstraction he describes is purely formal, a matter of lack of concrete properties; beyond the invocation of a familiar stereotype about the Jews there’s no explanation of how such abstraction, in conjunction with the value dimension, represents the sort of danger that would make it a ‘fatal association’. Postone also does not acknowledge that what’s presented as national concreteness is a myth, sincemodern European national identities, not least those of Germany and France, did not rest on real concrete commonalities but were established by paving over sharp regional differences of language, history, tradition, and religion, so that the figure of the Jew might have been a useful surface onto which to displace and project such contradictions and tensions (just as anxieties about the Eucharist had been onto the Passover).[69] Nor, conversely, does he mention that in just this context the Jews were seen as too concrete as well as too abstract: the historical Jewish Question asked if Jews were able to separate, that is,abstract themselves from their own religious, communal bonds and ritual observances in order to join the imaginary community of the nation state; nor that, in the twentieth century, those Jews whodid meet the criteria Postone lays out for concrete national personhood—those who spoke the language, celebrated the traditions, served in the military, had families that had lived in the land for generations, had even converted to Christianity—werestill not regarded by antisemites as genuine Frenchmen, Germans, and so on. The term missing from Postone’s list is once more revealing and decisive: there is no mention ofrace as a criterion for concrete national personhood. Why not?Finally, there’s no explicit articulation of how Jews were identified with communism, nor recognition that making such a connection would trouble the connection of Jews to ‘bourgeois state and law’. Even if some on the far right, then as now, saw bourgeois political institutions as merely a cover for incipient socialism and communism, making such a connection between such institutions and these political consequences of capitalism requires us to explain how an apparently formal abstraction contains something far more threatening to the survival of a particular vision of the nation state.

In this context we might also note that where Postone tends to see law as emblematic of externalised abstraction, the historian Johann Chapoutot shows that for the Nazis the Aryan/Jewish, concrete/abstract distinctions cut through the concept of law itself. Chapoutot’s analyses of Nazi legal theories confirm Postone’s sense of the importance of the abstract/concrete distinction for National Socialist antisemitism. But they also show once more than the relevant notion of abstraction is profoundly racial. Nazis believe that abstract laws were the legacy of a ‘counter-race’ who, by dint of their heterogeneous racial constitution and Eastern, Asiatic ancestry, lacked the spontaneity, autonomy, and connection to nature of the Germanic race, which, by contrast, possessed an instinctive, expressive relation to its own self-generated laws.[70] 

Communist political abstraction might emerge out of capitalism, but fetishised opposition to it as a component of an imagined international Jewish conspiracy does not constitute fetishised anti-capitalism in the same sense as opposition to the US or Israel might. Imperialism isn’t ‘history as constituted by capitalism’ in the same way as communism and social democracy are. To subordinate modern antisemitism’s anti-communism to a form of anti-capitalism ends up conflating what gives rise to the object of hostility with the object itself. Postone’s solution to the problem of how to explain the apparent paradoxes of the antisemitic imagination ultimately begs the question, restating the problem as if it were the answer.

To understand how Jews were associated with communism and how communism itself was seen as Jewish requires a different account of political abstraction.The figure of the Jewish Bolshevik does not personify the formal abstraction of the liberal citizen but the passion for abstraction of the fanatic, who, as Alberto Toscano shows, is defined by ‘an enthusiasm for the abstract’.[71] Toscano distinguishes between two European traditions of thought about the fanatic. On the one hand, the prerevolutionary Enlightenment sees the fanatic as the figure of religious irrationalism; on the other, in the wake of the French Revolution, the fanatic becomes identified with the Jacobins, with an excess of reason, a dedication to abstract ideals at the expense of human life. In the notion of the Jewish Bolshevik, we might say, the two traditions converge: the fanatic is both a figure of abstract universal reason and religious mania, of dedication both to metaphysical principles and theological prescriptions, although the former is ultimately understood as a mask for the latter.[72]

This subjectivity is not conceived simply in terms of a lack of certain concrete properties, but assubstantively constituted by a profound attachment to abstract religious and political principles that seek the destruction of the established social, political, economic, racial order. The identification of Jews with political fanaticism has a long history, one in which ideas about Jews and ideas about Muslims are deeply intertwined:James Renton, focusing on the political struggles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, points out that ‘Christianity’s original fanatic was the Jew’ and that the Jew, like the Muslim, was frequently characterised by irrational religious fervour, dogmatism, and subversion.[73] Conflations of Jewish and Muslim theological-political threats also informed the early modern emergence of the notion of the fanatic as popular term for a single-minded revolutionary theological politics that deployed violence as a preferred political weapon. Gil Hochberg reminds us of ‘nineteenth-century European depictions of Semites – both Jews and Muslims… as devoted monotheistic fanatics controlled by zeal and despotism, and as victims to a submissive mentality that prevents them from acquiring modern rational skills that […] only belong to their Western counterparts, the European Christians, or […] “Aryans.”[74]

The myth of Judeo-Bolshevism emerges from this history. Paul Hanebrink traces it to three ‘pillars of anti-Jewish thought’: the association of Jews and Judaism with heresy, misrule, and social disharmony; longstanding beliefs in an international Jewish conspiracy; and much older fears of Jewish fanaticism.[75] Strikingly, Hanebrink refers to the blood libel as the emblematic instance of the Christian notion of Jewish fanaticism, presumably because it embodies the notion of Jewish subordination to an abstract law utterly incompatible with Christian life. Even the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism, although clearly directed specifically at Jews, overlaps with the discourses of Orientalism and Semitism. Hanebrink notes that many counterrevolutionary and conservative writers concerned with Jewish Bolshevism invoked wars against the Ottoman Empire and Islam. Hitler spoke of an ‘Asiatic Jewish flood’. Nor were such ideas restricted to the right: Toscano notes that Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes both identified Bolshevism as a form of Islam.

In his account of political abstraction Postone only looks west. He focuses on the identification of Jews with Western political modernity, and overlooks the entire ideological and discursive ensemble that produces and accompanies the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism, which imagined the Jews as Oriental, Asiatic, barbaric enemies of Christian European civilisation. Restricting his view in this way helps prepare the ground for the second analogy— neo-anti-imperialism as a fetishised rejection of liberal democracies in favour of identitarian ethnonationalisms. But it makes it much harder for him to explain the mortal threat represented by Judeo-Bolshevism. Here I wonder if Postone forgets the rupture in the history of antisemitism that makes his own reflections possible: the historical, political, and moral impact of the Holocaust, the establishment of the state of Israel, and the introduction of the now commonplace notion of a ‘Judeo-Christian tradition’ altered—however contingently and reversibly—the cultural and political status of Jews in many parts of the overdeveloped world. These events put an end, in the period Postone wrote, to the kinds of associations that led many to imagine Jews as fanatical avatars of an Asiatic Bolshevism that sought the destruction of Western civilization.[76] But they are important features of modern antisemitism.

If Postone had considered these features, had, as it were, also looked east as well as west, he might have been struck by the ways in which contemporary Islamophobia repeats certain structures and obsessions of modern antisemitism. I’ve touched upon the long history of thinking of Jews and Muslims as theological and political fanatics. Structurally, in both cases—modern antisemitism and contemporary Islamophobia—we see a racialised religion whose adherents are imagined as potentially (immanently) or actually fanatical subjects, dedicated to abstract principles that threaten the sovereignty and integrity of the nation, the people, or civilisation itself. To be clear: by definition, Islamophobia does not display the features Postone says distinguish modern antisemitism. If it did, they wouldn’t be distinguishing features. As a rule, contemporary Islamophobia does not imagine Muslims as the tremendous, invisible conspiratorial power behind both capitalism and communism. But, as the contemporary fantasy of the Great Replacement shows, they are imagined as playing an important political role in how such power is exercised. The material implications of contemporary Islamophobia also recall some of the historical conditions of modern antisemitisms: the myriad forms of state discrimination, surveillance, and persecution that have unfolded in many countries since the attacks of September 11, 2001. Contemporary Islamophobia does not present itself intuitively as a form of ‘fetishized anti-capitalism’, but it is nevertheless a reaction to history as constituted by capitalism, to capitalism’s social consequences. It is the difference in that distinction that I’ve sought to identify and think through here.

Postone’s theory remains of interest because it rests on strong observations about the distinguishing features of modern antisemitism and seeks to explain them in terms of constitutive features of capitalist social relations. But to account for all the phenomena he points to as comprehensively and elegantly as he does he needs to conflate significantly different forms of anti-capitalism and thereby downplay some of the most important features of the specifically political dimensions of antisemitism. Just what it means to call the anti-communism of the antisemite a form of anti-capitalism, he does not say. Where he might have explained how communism’s political abstractions develop out of and turn against the abstract logic of exchange, or reflected more deeply about race and nation, fantasy and projection, he chooses instead to focus on the homologies of abstract and concrete, and on the excesses and failings of criticism of contemporary capitalist nation states. There is no doubt that locating global evil in a single political actor, however we diagnose it, is a serious political mistake, and cannot be a part of any genuinely emancipatory politics. But conflating manifest and latent anti-capitalism can produce its own kinds of political errors and misrecognitions, preventing us from correctly understanding the past and from recognising, understanding, and combating our real enemies in the present.


I would like to thank the editors of Historical Materialism, especially Alberto Toscano, and my three anonymous reviewers, for their generous comments, questions, and suggestions. A special word of gratitude to the editors of this special issue, particularly Sai Englert, for their interest in this piece and their patience with my development of it. Thank you also to Chris Hill, Matan Kaminer, and Michael Rothberg for their comments on the short paper out of which this essay emerged, and for conversations about Postone and related matters as I expanded it.Finally, my thanks to Jonathan Boyarin, and to the other organizers and participants in the March 18, 2018 Cornell University Symposium "Theory and Forgetting: The Jewish Question," where I first had the opportunity to present these ideas.


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[1] The significance of Postone for the Anti-German movement in particular is widely recognised. See Michael Sommer pp.61-73 for an assortment of examples. Gerhard Hanloser’s books document Postone’s influence on the Anti-Germans. Maciej Zurowski sees Postone’s influence, both manifest and latent, in debates over antisemitism in the British left. See his translator’s introduction to Sommer esp. x to xiii.

For more scholarly engagement with Postone see Werner Bonefeld 2014. esp. p.210 and Lars Rensmann and Samuel Salzborn 2021. Michael Henrich 2004, while clearly distinguishing his views from Postone, shares with Postone a vocabulary and orientation, as does Robert Kurz. Outside the spheres of the New Marx Reading and Wertkritik, Enzo Traverso 2003 p.146 draws on Postone’s account of the Nazi conception of the Jews as abstract; Brendon McGeever 2022 his notion of antisemitism as ‘anti-hegemonic’. For recent scholarly efforts to extend Postone’s theories in directions he did not contemplate, see Day 2016 and 2020 on anti-Asian racism and White 2020 on anti-Black racism respectively.

[2] Postone 1980, p. 108.

[3] Postone 1980, p. 105. Engaging critically with Postone’s claims here would require a separate essayThereing not only a critique but alsod uses of his dieas. m, Postone explains idge.  with the Anti-German movement. oth.] tio e .

[4]For ‘patterns’ see Postone 1986 pp. 306-7.

[5] Postone 1980, p. 113.

[6] Postone 1980, p. 105, Postone’s italics.

[7]Postone 1980, p. 106.

[8]Postone 1980, p. 106.

[9] Postone 1980, p. 106.

[10] Postone 1980, p. 108.

[11]Postone, 2003, p. 93. My emphasis.

[12] Postone 1980, p. 113.

[13] Postone 2003, p. 93.

[14] Postone 2017, p. 48.

[15] Postone 2003, p. 87

[16] Postone 2017, pp. 47-8.

[17]Postone 1980, p. 106.

[18] Postone 1980, p. 106.

[19] Langmuir 1996.

[20] Postone 2003, p. 87.

[21]Postone 1980, p. 98; Postone 2017, p. 44.

[22] Day 2020.

[23] I draw here on Moses 2021, chapter 7.

[24] Postone 2006, 105.

[25] Balibar 2007, p. 60.

[26] Postone 1993, p.137 and p. 146.

[27] Postone 1993, p. 138.

[28] Postone 1993, p. 170

[29]Postone 1980, p. 109.

[30]Postone 1980, p. 109.

[31]Postone 1980, p. 109.

[32] Postone 1980, p. 109.

[33] Postone 1986, p. 311.

[34]Postone 1980, p. 110.

[35]Postone 1986, p. 312. There is an earlier version of this passage in Postone 1980, p.112, which has slightly different syntax and omits the reference to personification.

[36]Postone, 2003, p. 93.

[37] Postone 1980, p. 107

[38] Whether the notion of the antisemite as the other of modernity can be sustained in a time when antisemites appear as cunning, transgressive social media trolls, confident in their knowledge of the Frankfurt School, fluidly drawing out the implications of climate catastrophe in the interests of promoting an identitarian, exclusivist political vision is, of course, an open question, and I will not address it here.

[39] Levi 2014, p. 14 makes a similar suggestion

last accse of Anti-Imperialism, Department at Drew University. domination nan. Cronan maybe most useful for setting up the ques.

[40] Postone 2017, p. 62.

[41] Postone 2006, p. 96.

[42]Postone 2006, p. 99.

[43] Postone 2017, p 62.

[44] Postone 2017, p. 63.

[45] Postone 2017, p. 65.

[46]Postone 2006, p. 97.

[47]Postone 2017, p. 61

[48] Postone 2006, p. 108.

[49] See for example Stoetzler 2018.

[50] Postone 2006 pp. 109-110.

[51] I am thinking here of the writings of Stephan Grigat and Matthias Kuentzel.

[52] Murthy 2020.

[53] Postone 2006 p. 96.

[54] Postone 2017, p. 62.

[55] Postone 2017 p. 60 cf. Bonefeld 2014, p. 197.

[56] “Postone 1980, p. 108. This, by the way, is why to read Postone as arguing that the Jews represent money not only misconstrues his question, but a crucial element of his answer: that the Jew as personification offers an externalization of the abstract historical processes of the valorisation of value that have no other material representation. Cf. White 2020 p. 32.

[57] Postone 1980, p.107.

[58] Postone 1980 p. 110 and Postone 1986, p. 310

[59]Postone 1980, p. 106.

[60] Postone 1980, p. 105.

[61] Landa 2018, chapter 7.

[62] Traverso 2003, p. 106.

[63] Here I draw again on Moses 2021, chapter 7.

[64] Postone 1980, p. 111.

[65] Tamas 2019.

[66] Rosenberg 2018.

[67] Why Postone insists that in Auschwitz the Nazis sought ‘to wrest away [from the Jews] the last remnants of the concrete material “use-value”: clothes, gold, hair, soap’ remains a puzzle. Postone 1980, p. 114 and Postone 1986, p. 313. Postone 2003 p. 95 removes the reference to soap.

[68] “Postone 1980, p. 113 and Postone 2003, p. 94.

[69] Michael P. Steinberg sees German antisemitism in particular as a displacement of intra-Christian conflict. Steinberg 2022.

[70] Chapoutot 2018.

[71] Toscano 2010.

[72] For a similar articulation of this relation, see Levi 2014, pp. 98-99.

[73] Renton 2018, p. 2165.

[74]Hochberg 2016, p. 195.

[75] Hanebrink 2018, pp. 28-31.

[76]Slabodsky 2014 describes this shift and its implications for postcolonial thought.

Rootism, Modernity, and the Jew

Antisemitism and the Reactionary Imaginary, 1789-1945

Ishay Landa

The far-right identification of Jews with modernity has been noted by many scholars, some writing from a Marxist perspective, such as Enzo Traverso and Moishe Postone. Yet most analyses have fallen short of offering a properly dialectical account of antisemitism, one that will scrutinize the antinomies at the heart of the antisemitic discourse and trace their relations to the contradictions of modernity itself. In this paper, I will make modernity as movement the focus of the analysis.

Modernity, philosophically underpinned by the Enlightenment, and politically ushered in by the French Revolution of 1789,[1]was seen by its reactionary and fascist opponents as both a time of great upheaval, constant change and social disruption; but also, as the setting up of an era of stasis and degeneration. It was paradoxically decried, sometimes simultaneously, as both helplessly nomadic and incurablysedentary.  And in both respects “the Jew” and “the Jewish spirit” were often placed, no matter how spuriously, at the very centre of attacks. Qua “wandering” or “eternal,” the Jews were seen as embodying the spirit of restlessness and lack of roots, undermining tradition and fixed national and racial identities; theirdynamic role as revolutionaries, conspirators and rabble rousers was ritually denounced. 

Jews were also condemned, however, as a major obstacle to movement and expansion, the arch-enemies of imperialism, seeking to establish a realm of universal brotherhood, peace and egalitarianism.  By attacking the Jews, reactionaries and fascists thus attempted to settle their scores with a modernity that they feared and loathed in equal measure. As historian Alon Confino incisively contended, at the heart of National Socialism lay the project of creating “a world without Jews.” Here it will be argued that only a struggle to complete the revolution of 1789 and follow the process of modernity through, a process comprising both movement and improvement, can bring about a world without antisemitism.


This piece is being made available as a preprint edition of the double-volume Marxism and the Critique of Antisemitism special issue of Historical Materialism. Further additions will still be made before then. The final published version of this text will be made available on the Brill website in the coming months. We ask that citations refer to the Brill edition.All Illustrations are by Natalia Podpora.


Modernity as Universal Uprooting: The Enlightenment and its Opponents

In what ways were Jews and Judaism associated with modernity? What was the nature of the supposed linkage? The following lines, written shortly after the beginning of “Operation Barbarossa” in June 1941, can serve as an advantageous starting point:

Why are we recognizing so late that England in truth is, and can be, without the Western outlook? It is because we will only henceforth grasp that England started to institute themodern world, but that modernity in its essence is directed toward the unleashing of the machination of the entire globe. Even the thought of an agreement with England, in the sense of a division of the imperialistic “franchises,” does not touch the essence of the historical process which England is now playing out to the end within Americanism and Bolshevism and thus at the same time within world-Judaism. The question of the role ofworld-Judaism is not a racial question, but a metaphysical one, a question that concerns the kind of human existence which in anutterly unrestrained way can undertake as a world-historical “task” the uprooting of all beings from being.[2]

The author is National Socialist metaphysician Martin Heidegger, and the venue is his self-described Black Notebooks. For Heidegger, the modern world, with Judaism at its vanguard, signified a colossal uprooting of humanity, a tearing up of hallowed traditions and the dissolving of nations in groundless universalism. He stressed the metaphysical, rather than racial nature of this process, in a way that can all too easily be interpreted as marking a dissent from the official position.And yet Nazi racism itself, far from being an exclusively biological obsession, was a way of addressing a crisis of identity and culture, and relinking Germans to their roots. “What is the meaning of ‘race'?,”  asked the German National Catechism – a pedagogic text for school children, published in 1934 – and proceeded to answer: “The word ‘race’ derives probably from the Latin radix = root. So is race for every person the root and the origin of the inner essence and physical appearance.”[3]

Nazism in that way culminated a long tradition of anti-modern, and anti-Jewish, ideology.It happily availed itself of pseudo-scientific innovations, cloaking itsfundamentally emotional and hierarchical appeals in empirically-sounding language. Yet its racism appears to have been fundamentally a form of what might be designated as “rootism,” a reactionary position that mobilizes the idea of a distinct national and / or ethnic origin to stymie the universalist project of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Such root is presented as immeasurably precious and delicate, endangered by the corrosivemarch of modernity; it must therefore be shielded from the melting pot of universalism and humanism, cherished, and cultivated.

In the last decades, to be sure, the Enlightenment and its legacy have become favoured targets for criticism. Some writers have even proclaimed the Enlightenment the very source of “modern” antisemitism, heralding a new, essentially secular and rationalistic form of Jew baiting.Before we proceed to investigate the reactionary position, it is therefore important to briefly address this alternative genealogy of antisemitism. 

Undeniably, many Enlightenment thinkers were deeply ambivalent about Jews and Judaism, and in some cases outright hostile to them.  The need for Jewish emancipation was not universally accepted by proponents of the Enlightenment, but the many who were in its favour, seldom did so out of basic human sympathy with the plight of a discriminated and persecuted minority, let alone as a result of a particular appreciation of Jews as individuals or of Judaism as a cultural and religious phenomenon.A minority of physiocrats and espousers of progress did believe that the Jews are worthy of appreciation such as they were, and that the stigma on their national character and economic pursuits is fundamentally unjust.But such unreserved acceptance of Jews as the full equals of non-Jews, or possibly even their betters, appears to have been exceptional among the progressives of the era.[4] For the most part, actually existing Jews were regarded as backward, in many ways unattractive and degenerate.Those who espoused emancipation mostly did so, if they were decidedly friendly, out of the belief that the Jews’ presumably repulsive attributes, notably their financially parasitic and unproductive ways of life, were not their fault. Perennial oppression has twisted them out of shape, economically, culturally, morally and even physically.Thus, they could be reformed into good citizens of modernity, and it was in fact the duty of their long-time oppressors to do so. The prototypical example of this position is Christian Wilhelm von Dohm’s 1781 petition on behalf of Jewish emancipation, a work revealingly titled Ueber die bürgerliche Verbesserung der Juden – “On the CivilImprovement of the Jews.” Others were highly sceptical about the Jews’ ability to improve but went along with reform projects, since doing otherwise would have meant to undermine the universalism of their cause. For them, it was more a case of: all human beings are equal,even the Jews.

To the extent that the Enlightenment embraced anti-Jewish attitudes, Judaism was seen as a stubborn, atavistic relic, resisting the claims of the new times. This was integral to a general critique of traditional religions, reflecting deistic (and sometimes covertly atheistic) positions. Yet, by and large, Judaism was deemed decidedly moreresistant to modernity than Christianity, which was attributed with progressive and potentially universalistic potential, notably by Immanuel Kant.Representatives of Jewish Enlightenment such as Moses Mendelssohn or Saul Ascher, who contested such unfavourable attitudes towards their religion and culture, and argued that Judaism was eminently suited to align with Reason, in fact more so than Christianity, were mostly ignored or patronized.[5]

And yet, biases and vacillations notwithstanding, it was the Enlightenment which sought to emancipate Jews and the French Revolution that politically implemented unprecedented emancipatory measures, going well beyond the timid overtures of European “Enlightened despots,” initially in France and then in the territories which came under French occupation. For that reason, a formative advocate of the linkage between the Enlightenment and modern antisemitism such as Arthur Hertzberg,in spite of presenting a mass of valuable historical evidence, ultimately misconstrued the matter:Hertzberg had shown the French Enlightenment to have been deeply enmeshed in Christian prejudice (however unconscious), and also to have rationalized traditional anti-Jewish sentiment and given it new clothes, such as Voltaire’s vicious neo-pagan attack on Judaism; he also documented the existence of widespread anti-Jewish persuasions among French revolutionaries.But for all that the humanism of the Enlightenment and the Revolution was in retrospect lamentably limited and compromised, it took the crucial, first step, towards emancipation and de-ghettoization. And it was this crucial step which modern antisemitism regarded as a horrendous transgression. The executors of the Enlightenment opened up the possibility for Jewish integration into the modern world, infuriating reactionaries, who rejected both Jewish assimilation and the modern world itself. 

Hertzberg’s main culprit is Voltaire, judged to be “the major link in Western intellectual history between the anti-Semitism of classic paganism and the modern age,” shaping the mindset of a “left-wing intelligentsia” that ultimately occasioned the calamities of the 20th-century.[6]“The era of Western history that began with the French revolution,” it is extravagantly claimed, “ended in Auschwitz.”[7]The starting point of the Shoah thus strangely shifts away from counter-revolutionary Germany and onto revolutionary France, and this without  showing that Voltaire indeed vitally shaped modern antisemitism in France (a single, short footnote is dedicated to such a suggestion), let alone in Germany.Hertzberg merely assumed a historical causal lineage that needed to be carefully reconstructed.That he, and other authors agreeing with his claims, did not do so is probably because in reality no such path existed (which is by no means to deny the prevalent, and toxic, hatred of Jews on the part of much 19th-century French socialism, as exemplified by Fourier, Blanqui or Proudhon). It is possible to show, on the contrary, how very early on German opponents of Jewish emancipation linked it to the new order inaugurated by the Revolution, and indeed sometimes explicitly to Voltaire.One illustration of that would be the legal debates surrounding Jewish merchants’ right to trade in coffee which had taken place in Frankfurt in 1795, a city that had shortly fallen under French occupation in 1792. As shown by Israeli historian Robert Liberles, directly challenging Hertzberg’s hypothesis, the opponents of Jewish entry into the city’s coffee trade positioned themselves strongly against the Enlightenment and its political implications.  Defenders of the Jewish appeal argued that current Jews were not those of the past, but improved, Enlightened ones, and hence should no longer be hampered in their activities.Their critics agreed with them that things have changed, but not for the better. “The response made clear,” as Liberles explains, that “Jews had identified themselves with intellectual and political causes that sought a whole series of undesirable changes. They had exchanged their old religion for that of Voltaire or even for explicit atheism and had done so with great enthusiasm. But whether this sense of a Jewish Enlightenment comprises a sensible set of changes is highly questionable.”[8]So we can get a sense of the way that, for reactionaries, the crucial thing about the Revolution and the Enlightenment, including Voltaire, was not their lingering anti-Jewishness but their crucial introduction of a modernity that was favorable to the Jews. 

“The Hertzberg hypothesis,” if so it may be called, was not a discrete historical claim. It was embedded, rather, in a general historical and philosophical paradigm chastising universalism as “totalitarian,” and proclaiming the advantages of pluralism and recognition of differences.In the spirit of Jacob L. Talmon, the influential Cold-War theorist of “totalitarian democracy,” Hertzberg argued that “The idea of freedom for all sorts of ideas was the major intellectual force for liberating the Jews [...]. The idea of remaking men to fit into the new society was the seed-bed of totalitarianism.”[9]This sounds like a sensible enough claim, but in reality, it obscures the paradox that universalism can be quite tolerant, while pluralism, conversely, can take radically intolerant forms. In fact, one might argue that the more pluralism is informed by some universalist assumptions, the more tolerant it is likely to be.As we shall see, modern antisemitism was recurrently abetted precisely by the argument that universalism is oppressive and fails to grant “freedom for all sorts of ideas,” legal and moral systems, traditions and religions. Whence this paradox?

Oppressive Pluralism

Political and cultural modernity sought to emancipate the Jews – it proclaimed a world in which belonging to the nation would be defined in terms of civil status, which was to be egalitarian, eliminating class and ethnic prerogatives, and, in theory at least, the recourse to humanity as a universal category offered individuals protection and dignity. The mere fact of being human (a man, more precisely, at that early phase) entitled one to certain “natural, inalienable and sacred” rights. These rights, argued the pioneers of political modernity on both sides of the Atlantic, would take precedence over religious and ethnic “identity,” as we would now call it. Particularism can be cultivated in the private sphere, but never allowed to override the public one.Many of them, to be sure, did not abide by such rules, as the infamous case of the slave-owning fathers of The United States attests to. Yet the numerous critics of universalism who cite this and other examples as evidence against modernity, forget that their charge loses its normative thrust once the values of universalism are cast aside.For it is only when measured against the rights of man that slavery becomes reprehensible.Those who reject such doctrine and espouse counter-Enlightenment ideals can thus, without risk of contradiction, uphold slavery in one form or another, and so they often did, for instance the important conservative German political theorist, Adam Müller, who rebuked the enslavement of “the negroes” in the USA, but only to justify the serf-owning traditions of feudal Europe.[10]

From its earliest phases, the reaction to modernity denied the unity of humanity, and advocated national, racial and class pluralism and particularism.  The classic example is provided by Joseph de Maistre:

The constitution of 1795, like its predecessors was made for man. But there is no such thing asman in the world. In my lifetime I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, etc.; [...]. But as for man, I declare that I have never in my life met him; if he exists he is unknown to me. [...] What is a constitution? Is it not the solution to the following problem?Given the population, the mores, the religion, the geographic situation, the political circumstances, the wealth, the good and the bad qualities of a particular nation, to find the laws that suit it.

Now the constitution of 1795 does not even broach this problem, thinking of man only.[11]

Disingenuously, this quintessential representative of the counter-Enlightenment would have his readers believe that one can meet a Frenchman who is not also a man, asking them to treat the adjective “French” as all important and to dismiss the very existence of the noun it aims to describe.Adjectives are deemed concrete, the nouns they describe are abstractions. This sleight of hand aside, de Maistre asks of good constitutions to make allowance for particular qualities, even bad ones. Can this mean that if a nation is corrupt, corruption ought to be accommodated by its constitution?And if, more to our immediate concern, its “mores” are antisemitic, should this too be legally tolerated? Maistre himself, perhaps true to his pluralism, was anti-Jewish, and lays blame for the revolution partly at the Jews’ door (while also strongly blaming Voltaire for the revolution). It might appear possible to construe Maistre’s position as a pragmatic attempt to bridge the distance between the universalist desideratum and the particularistic reality. Yet this would ignore the fundamental disavowal of universalism entailed by his position and the elevation of the particular as a barrier to its claims. Maistre’s fundamental aim here is not to allow a safe passage from Frenchness to humanity, or even to establish a civil interchange between the two. For after all, if humanity doesn’t exist, no Frenchman can be expected to even attempt the journey. Such denial of universalist injunctions in the name of national specificity and local traditions was characteristic of the opponents of the principles of the French Revolution,[12]and it remained a staple of reaction down to fascism. Carl Schmitt thus argued that “The political world is a pluriverse, not a universe,”[13] a contention meant, of course, not simply descriptively but prescriptively. And as we shall see below apropos Maurice Barrès, the same logic led to the most extravagant forms of solipsism in the name of a supposedly distinct French “truth,” “justice,” and “reason.”

Within reactionary anti-universalism, the Jewish “question” became so central precisely because Jews were the perennial “other” of Christian tradition, those doomed by history, religion and custom to remain forever different, insidious, menacing and contemptible.So, for both defenders of assimilation and its opponents, successfully subsuming even such timeless alterity in the universalism of “humanity,” would mean something like the ultimate vindication of modernity, and the final affront to its opponents.This was one of the main reasons that modernity and Jewishness were largely intertwined in the reactionary imagination.Resisting Jewish modernity therefore became a cause célèbre of European reactionaries, or, in historian Shulamit Volkov’s apt term, “a cultural code” uniting all those on the German and French right (in fact, across most of Europe). Volkov’s studies are also useful in showing how, in the last third of the 19th century, left-wing circles in both these countries widely disabused themselves of their former anti-Jewish attitudes.[14]

Roots of Rootism: The Romantic Revolt against the Wandering Jew

It is thus within the counter-Enlightenment that a rejection of modernity as Jewish and of Jewsas modern was formed, and this especially and most fatefully in the country fashioning itself the primary victim of French political and cultural expansionism: Germany. If Heidegger is one of the last representatives of this tradition, at its beginnings we find German romantics such as the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher.In his interventions in the debate on Jewish emancipation is found the characteristic romantic defence of the local against the foreign, of the particular against the universal.Significantly, his anti-Jewish polemics mostly targeted not the Jewish demand for cultural and religious autonomy vis-à-vis Christianity, but the wish of some Jewish spokespeople, notably David Friedländer, to completely renounce Judaism and assimilate themselves into German Christianity.This radical proposition turned Friedländer into an unsavoury figure in most Jewish histories, in which he is unfavourably compared to the likes of Mendelssohn and Ascher, who never contemplated forsaking their ancestral faith.And yet, as explained by Jonathan M. Hess, Friedländer was not simply a religious renegade, but someone who sought to preserve Judaism in a sublated form within a Christianity that was conceived as a formal religion of universalistic acceptance.  This was, at any rate, the way his indignant Christian critics understood his move. They thus rallied to defend their citadel from a perceived attempt of infiltration, warning against insidious efforts to “Judaize” Christianity from within.And this is also one of the key historical junctures in which a move from a traditional, religious opposition to Judaism to an ethnic and proto-racist stance can be detected: for presently it became insufficient to attack the Jewish religion; Jewish non-religion and assimilation became the superior threat.If the Enlightenment chastised Judaism mainly on account of an attributed backwardness, the Romantics feared its progressive thrust.Schleiermacher thus harangued against a Jewish-French bid to take over Germany. “I have often read,” hewrote in 1799, “how these enlightened and educated Jews all expect us to know something about Judaism [...]. Do these Jews all know so little about Christianity? They seem to me to be like the Frenchmen who have been living among us for ten years and yet still do not want to learn a word of proper German; of course the Jews carry this off in a much larger scale.”[15] Note how the emphasis here is no longer so much on Jews vs. Christians, but on Jews and French vs.German Christians. Christianity becomes a local, particular attribute, a tradition that must be shielded from a Judeo-French, Enlightened modernity.

This polemics became wider and deeper in the course of the 19th-century. Under the Napoleonic occupation of Germany, German Romantics turned the Jew into a foil in opposition to whom an authentic national culture might be galvanized, one capable of fending off the egalitarian onslaught of the French Revolution. An important headquarter of this counterattack was the Deutsche Tischgesellschaft, (German Table Society) founded in Berlin in January 1811 by the conservative Romantic political theorist Adam Müller and the Romantic writers and poets Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim, and counting amongst its members such notables of German thought and culture as Johan Gottlieb Fichte and Heinrich von Kleist.This literary-political association, whose membership was mostly from the nobility (some 50 percent) and the upper-class bourgeoisie, and included professors, highly-ranked officials and army people, used to gather on Tuesdays in a local restaurant. Its purpose was to disseminate opposition to the Prussian Reform Movement, known also as the Stein-Hardenberg Reforms, whose goal was to carry through some of the Enlightenment’s ideal in Prussia, such as liberal constitutional and administrative changes, educational reforms, the abolition of serfdom, the encouragement of economic competition and, last but not least, granting of civil equality to Jews. This modernization was perceived as the onset of a plebeian, egalitarian and democratic era, at the cost of the old hierarchy and its aristocratic privileges. This emerges clearly in the speech of one of the Society’s important ideologues, Ludolf von Beckedorff, where a “twofold war” was declared, the first “superficial, amused and ironic against the philistine,” the second “thorough, serious and honest, against the Jews”:

In an era in which the laws of the forefathers are largely cancelled, in which ancient and sacred things are buried in the same crypt along with antiquated andspiritless ones, in which there is an attempt to create a confusion and mixture between all things, laws, estates and religions and to bring about, in short, a condition of generalized plebeianism,  in such an era a Society cannot find a better way of expressing its profound protest against these random innovations than by banishing the Jews, these eternal enemies of Christianity, these adversaries of all order, this inquisitive and innovation-hungry people.[16]

The speaker illustrates how the fight against modernity as massified and plebeian began to find in Jews and Judaism its metonymical release, effortlessly combining traditional attacks on the Jews as the eternal enemy of Christianity, with a new, (anti-) modern discourse, in which the Jews are the catalysts and the symbols of a new epoch and its nefarious innovations.In its founding document the Society therefore clarified that it will not admit as members either the philistines or the Jews.  The combined Jewish-philistine front, argued the central figure of Clemens Brentano, was foolishly and treacherously importing into Germany the cosmopolitan ideals of the Enlightenment, depreciating Germany and imitating France, forsaking the values of the military and “arguing that one must hand over the forts in order to protect the houses.”[17] In an early avowal of rootism, Brentano saw the Jewish-philistine aim as one of FrenchifyingGermany, chiselling its contours in accordance with the straight lines of a new, foreign and universalistic model. Such people frequently speak of patriotism but not out of concrete love of the homeland, since “they hold in contempt old holidays and folktales,” and work to “obliterate all that which turns their homeland into a special and individualistic country.” They thus “eliminate” the “old customs and conventions, smash the armours and the shields,” “cancel all prejudices” and everything that ties people with bonds of fidelity to the place where they were born.[18] 

The Society’s resistance to the reception of Jews into German society – an assimilation and integration that was particularly evident in Berlin’s high-society circles, with its famous Jewish Salons – found another notorious expression in Achim von Arnim’s 1811 speech, On the Characteristics of Judaism, in which he rehearsed the worst of the traditional accusations against the Jews, from well-poisoning to the slaughtering of Christian children, but complemented these time-worn tirades with decidedly more modern, scientifically sounding arguments, addressing the Jews’ biological type.He thus tried to explain the “particular stench” supposedly spread by the Jews. In barring the Jews from their midst, the Society thus went beyond religiousdiscrimination and adopted an ethnic and proto-racist criterion, insisting that even descendants of Jews who have converted two or three generations ago could not be members.[19]

The anti-Jewish critique of the Society was historically momentous since it helped to install at the heart of elite German culture a discourse of hate linking Jews with modernity, the Enlightenment and the Revolution. This bundle of motifs underpinned much of the Romantic imaginary in Germany, forging a sense of nationhood as fiercely particularistic, spiritual, and anti-modern, in opposition to the “materialistic” universalism of France and its prime beneficiaries, assimilated Jewry, aspiring to enter German society and eviscerate its spirit.In literature it found many outlets, such as E. T. A. Hoffmann’s tales of mystery and enchantment, which often satirize modern Germany as soulless, commercial, philistine, French and Jewish, and urge it to recover its genuine, pre-modern essence, of artistic pursuit and magical power.A salient exampleis The Choosing of the Bride (1819), a tale of fantasy in which a mysterious goldsmith named Leonhard Turnhäuser, who had died in the 16th century, reappears in modern, barren Berlin, and with consummate mastery of magic helps an infatuated German artist to win his love interest, against the intrigues of greedy merchants and vulgar Jewish parvenus.The goldsmith is a Romantic champion expressly opposed to the Enlightenment, as he tells the young heroine, Albertine: “Now, if such people as are usually called romantics or visionaries give me out to be that same Turnhäuser, and consequently a ghost, you can imagine what annoyance I have to endure from respectable, enlightened people, who as sound citizens and men of business could not give a rap for romanticism and poetry.”[20]

The story’s moral appears simple: for all its present, crass materialism, Germany might yet be saved if it shakes off its enthrallment to French and Jewish ways and recover its national dignity. As an exchange between Melchior Vosswinkel, the cynical, wealthy counsellor who offers his daughter to the highest bidder in quest of more gain, and the young, romantic painter reveals, not all is lost: “You are an admirable man, or rather youth, my dear Herr Lehsen; in you there dwells that German virtue and probity which ought to be encouraged in our times. But believe me that, although I am a counsellorand dress in the French fashion, I feel the same way as you do.”[21] German virtue must overcome French fashion, and, even more so, Jewish insolence and ambition. Turnhäuser is accompanied by another spooky companion, the terrifying old Jew Manassa, who is revealed to be “none other than Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew!”[22]Both are representatives of a bygone world, but whereas the goldsmith incarnates eternal German probity his companion is eternal Jewish conniving and black sorcery. Perhaps the most significant ideologeme of the novel is its linkage between old Jewry, represented by the evil Manassa, and modern Jewry, represented by his repulsive nephew, the upstart Baron Benjamin Dümmerl of Vienna. The Baron is made to enact all the vile features ascribed by German reactionaries to Jews, particularly those who wish to enter polite society. It is thus useful to quote his description at some length, to get a sense of the ideological stakes raised by German romanticism and its efforts to demarcate the inside and the outside of Germanness, even by someone, like Hoffmann, who used to frequent Jewish salons himself: 

The young Baron Dümmerl was often to be seen in the theatre, where he boasted a private box [...], so that everyone knew that he was as long and thin as a beanstalk; that in his sallow face, shadowed by jet black curly hair and whiskers, he bore all the marks of the oriental; [...] that he spoke various languages with the same accent; that he scraped at the violin and hammered at the piano; that he patched together execrable verse; that without possessing knowledge or taste he played a critic of the arts and [...] affected wit and esprit though he possessed neither; that he was forward, importunate – in short, [...] an intolerable boor. And if you add to this that, his great wealth notwithstanding, a nasty pettiness and cupidity appeared in everything he did, it will not be surprising that even base souls who were otherwise devotees of Mammon soon deserted him.[23]

Jewish assimilation is thus an affront to the genuine Germans, a perversity, a cynical ploy to take over and destroy the German soul.  And here the move from religion as the criterion for belonging to a proto-racist proposition, whereby Jewish essence can never change and must remain completely alien and antagonistic vis-a vis the German one, transpires very clearly.  When Vosswinkel, who for all his greed is repelled by the repugnant Jewish suitor, points out to Manassa that his nephew is of the old faith, the Eternal Jew replies: “oh, Herr Counsellor, what of that? My nephew is in love with yourdaughter and desires to make her happy: a couple of drops of water will not matter to him; he will still be what he always was.”[24]

This passage also contains an important hint that should allow us to qualify the break with tradition usually attributed to late 19th-century biological racism, a racism supposedly based on science and biology.  Full-fledged racial antisemitism in fact came to rationalize a previouslyanchored belief in Jewish essentialism. Biological racism was not the product of “a scientific mindset”: rather, science was recruited to underpin essentialist conceptions long preceding any rational inquiry, and in fact coming predominantly from romanticist and anti-rationalist circles, appealing to intuition and drawing heavily upon ancient traditions.

At the realm of political theory, German romantic rootism probably found its most systematic expression in the writings of the already mentioned Adam Müller. His entire political theory can be seen as a refutation of the modern universalism of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution and a defence of the traditional right of the particular and individualistic. In his major work (1809), Müller conceded that  “occasionally in the history of the world we see things take a turn, as if to blur the different individualities of the peoples and to abolish the division of the world into various states; as if the concepts of a single head were to wipe out the whole colourful world of ideas,” installing in its place an artificial,  lifeless and uniform “mechanism.” He insisted however that such a phase cannot but prove transient, its real goal being “to hold up to each individual nation their greatest good, [...] namely the idea of ​​their uniqueness, which, like a wreath of victory, they must first conquer.”[25]

This defence of “the whole colourful world of ideas” appears to correspond to a tee to the pluralist emphasis put by Hertzberg on the necessity for “freedom for all sorts of ideas.” Such pluralism, Hertzberg believed, is vital in order to counteract thetotalitarian domination of universalism. But does such pluralism truly lead naturally to a support for progressive causes, in general, and Jewish emancipation, in particular? Far from doing so, Müller’s romantic defence of the particular is a defence of class hierarchies, of the stratified and serf-owning order of the middle ages, and of inter-state competition and war. It reads very much like an anticipation of Carl Schmitt’s “Pluriversum,” and indeed Schmitt’s theories appear contained in nuce in Müller’s 19th-century treatise, including the stern warning against perpetual peace and its alleged dangers, the opposition to the universal and “homogenous” state, the elevation of martial values above civilian ones, the need for external enemies, and the cult of charismatic leaders-artists.Unsurprisingly, therefore, hostility to the Jews is also integral to them. However, unlike the Nazis, at that phase Müller can still draw a distinction between the worthy politics of the ancient Hebrews and the degeneracy of modern Jewry. Moses and his political system are upheld in the most emphatic terms against the Enlightenment’s charge of representing a “theocracy.”The crucial achievement of heroic Moses, for Müller, is leading a people of materialistic slaves out of Egypt, and forming a cohesive, military people deeply rooted in its regained land. In ancient Israel Moses establishes a proto-feudal, military hierarchy, founded deliberately on agriculture, where the lower-classes are kept in “honourable subjugation and serviceability.”This order is favourably contrasted to the commercial systems of Greece and Rome, which are deemed the breeding grounds of the modern, rebellious “third estate.” This eulogy for the wisdom of the “Mosaic Law” allows the German Romantic to unfold a cautionary, rootist tale against modern universalism, where, due to the predominance of international commerce, national identity is weakened. Notice the importance of the metaphor of roots in the following passage: commerce “strikes weak [leichte] roots in a small place on earth, from where it now lets its activity wander across land and see, again striking roots here and there; it is hence everywhere at home, and in truth nowhere.”[26]Modern Jewry, however, is strongly censored by Müller for its “repulsive, insufferable arrogance.” After Moses’ time, their national cohesion gradually loosened and when another saviour came along “they crucified him,” and as a result were justly rewarded with uprooting, exile and eternal damnation.[27] 

The significance of this Romantic exclusionary turn and its immense danger as far as Germany’s Jews were concerned was painfully clear to the aging Jewish Enlightenment proponent, Saul Ascher. In a short pamphlet written in 1815 he passionately warned against the “Germano-mania” engulfing the country, represented by the likes of Müller and other members of the Deutsche Tischgesellschaft.He considered “national    isolation” as a regression to a lower cultural level, preceding the advances of the Enlightenment, and regarded it as “little wonder” that such harking back to medieval times would single out the Jews for special contrast and enmity.[28]This anti-Jewish disposition became dominant in the course of the 19th-century and after the unification of Germany.[29]  An additional example would be the document known as the Marwitz Memorandum, representing the Prussian nobility’s opposition to the liberal reforms undertaken during the Napoleonic period. Writing in 1823, its author, Friedrich von Marwitz, a Junker army officer, harangued against the attack on the feudal order, the liberation of the subjugated serfs, seen as inferior by nature, and, of course, against the liberation of the Jews. Significantly, he characterized the modernization of Prussia as an attempt to debase its honorary traditions and transform it into a “newfangled Jew state.”[30]In an early text on antisemitism written in 1937-8 Hannah Arendt argued that the “Romantic theories of the state are the fertile soil of all antisemitic ideology.”[31] There, she incisively analysed the critical role played by German romanticism in the formation of a repressive political theory pitting the “organic” nature of traditional, aristocratic society against the artificiality of bourgeois modernity, “tainted” by its association with Judaism. In that way romanticism equipped generations of German reactionaries with a theoretical and cultural weaponry that helped them repel the defenders of modernity. Arendt pointed to the pioneering and destructive part played by the Deutsche Tischgesellschaft, which she defined as “Germany's firstprogrammatically antisemitic organization.”[32]

Frenchomania and Antisemitism

Rootism thus became a central plank of European reaction. In France it found ample expression in antisemitic literature and, at least to begin with, was not exclusively aright-wing ideologeme.One can find its adumbrations in the “utopian” socialism of Fourier, for instance, whose fierce anti-capitalism nonetheless drew sharp distinctions between French, Christian and honest tradespeople, and their Jewish competitors. The latter were depicted as foreign, rootless and ruthless invaders, loyal only to “their secret and indissoluble brotherhood,” who knew how to manipulate the markets so as to make legendary gains and then disappear into their countries of origins leaving the local economy in ruins.Combining modern tropes with traditional Christian ones, Fourier referred in 1808 to the recurring Jewish invader as an immutable “Iscariot,” always maintaining his venality, and warned that if Jews were to widely settle in the country, “France would be no more than a vacant synagogue.”[33] Tellingly, Fourier’s critique was embedded in a rejection of Enlightenment modernity, which he reduced to corrupt and conspiratorial commercialism.Thus, when “the Jew Iscariot arrives in France” and starts to depress prices, the “people think this is wonderful, and sing the praises of competition, the Jews, philosophy, and fraternity.”[34] This should serve as a reminder of the initial complicity of wide sections of the left in spreading anti-Jewish rancour, even though, as mentioned above, these complaints were in time absorbed into a mostly right-wing and conservative discourse.

The charge against Jews as undermining national identity was central for Edouard Drumont, the toxic antisemitic propagandist whose attacks on Jews appear like an early, and only marginally less foul version of Julius Streicher’s tirades. “The Jew is of an ‘inexorable universalism,’” he affirmed, “and has no reason to adapt himself to our point-of-view, which is exclusively national.”[35]Prominent among his litany of accusations were the association of Jews with radicalism and the creation of social friction between workers and employers, the undermining of French traditions, the Jewish replacement of the genuine, local nobility of blood with a fake, international aristocracy of money, and a creation of popular culture catering to the “vile appetites of the masses.”[36]

French rootism was, if anything, even more central to Maurice Barrès’ antisemitism. This important far-right and ultra-nationalist essayist and author was obsessed with the threat to French identity posed by a fundamentally Jewish modernity anddedicated enormous efforts to try and furnish France a purified national myth, centred on the exclusion of the Jew. This was evident in his anti-Dreyfusard polemic, written in 1902:

[Dreyfus is] the deracinated individual who feels ill at ease in one of the plots of our old French garden [...] because he had no roots [...] that associated him strongly enough with the soil and the conscience of France to keep him from looking for his happiness, his peace, his life, in foreign lands. I don’t need to be told why Dreyfus betrayed. In a psychological sense, it is enough for me to know that he is capable of betrayal to know that he betrayed. The gap is filled in. That Dreyfus is capable of betrayal, I conclude from his race.[37]

Barrès’ nationalism was thus by definition antisemitic, and founded on the refutation of all universalism in the name of the particular and subjective. Truth, correspondingly, was not universally binding but a product of one’s nationalistic-individualistic perspective. “Truth,” he declared, “means finding a certain point, a single point, from whose perspective, and from no other beside it, all things are seen in their true proportions.” That Archimedean point was that of the Frenchman, allowing him to cling to his “French truth,” “French justice,” and “French reason.” “Pure nationalism,” he concluded, “is nothing but knowing about the existence of such a point, seeking after it, and having reached it, to stick to it in order to have all our art, our politics and our actions derive from it.”[38]

This “French perspective” formed the axis of Barrès’ literary output, for instance in the tellingly entitled novel, The Deracinated (1898).  And here as well Frenchness was too weak of a sentiment and had to be propped by the contrast with the supposedly non-French, the Jews. During one scene, Sturel, native son of the quintessentially French, provincial town of Neufchâteau feels a surge of identity as against his Jewish neighbours, newcomers from Germany:

With these people, how can one have a link? How can I find myself in community of feelings with them? Less educated than these nomads, less readers of newspapers, less informed about Paris, the bourgeois of Neufchâteau, who are perishing, [...] had a way of feeling, of life, a way of tasting the picturesque, of being indignant and moved, which allowed me to be in agreement with them, to enjoy their company. We had that something which cannot be analysed, a common tradition that had created in us the same consciousness.[39]

Barrès’ identitarian ideology of the late 19th century evinces striking parallels with the German romantic anti-modernity with which the century commenced. A 1820 story by Achim von Arnim opens with these sentences: “We were just leafing through an older calendar, the copperplate engravings of which reflect some of the follies of its time. It already lies behind us like the world of a fable! How rich was the world back then, before the general revolution, which received its name from France, collapsed all forms; how uniformly poor has it become!”[40]The same wistful atmosphere; the same sentiment; the same nostalgia. The only difference between the two writers, is that the French affiliates the wandering Jews of modernity to Germany; the German – to France.

Heimat versus Home: The Romantic Revolt against the Stationary Jew

So far, the discussion focused on the way that the “wandering Jews” were seen by antisemites as representatives of movement, the nomadic people par excellence; this might have led the reader to assume that reactionary thought, by contrast, elevated the static and the immutable. But this would be overly simple. For Jews were also recurrently denounced as the antipodes of movement and dynamics. Consider the following comparison drawn by Drumont between the forefathers of “all European nations,” the Aryans, and the Semites:

The Semite is mercantile, greedy, scheming, subtle, cunning; the Aryan is enthusiastic, heroic, chivalrous, disinterested, frank, confident to the point of naivety. [...] The Aryan is a farmer, poet, monk and above all a soldier; war is his true element, he happily goes to meet the peril, he braves death. [...] The Aryan goes on adventurous voyages and discovers America; the Semite, [...] waits until we have explored everything, cleared everything, to get rich at the expense of others.[41]

Adventure, exploration, empire building, and war are all foreign to the Jews who seek only to passively latch onto the efforts of others, since “everything that is a human excursion to unknown regions, an effort to enlarge the earthly domain is absolutely above the Semite and especially the Jewish Semite.”[42] This meant that the Jews could be blamed for seeking to arrest movement, for searching for a way around inevitable war and competition. Paradigmatically, Hitler thus argued that it is “always primarily the Jew” who negates social Darwinism, and tries “to play a little trick on Nature, to make the hard, inexorable struggle for existence superfluous.”[43] Whence this seeming paradox of reactionary ideology? Here, a dialectical analysis of capitalism becomes indispensable. Capitalism’s most famous and sophisticated critic, Karl Marx, conceived of it as a deeply discordant mode of production, whose vectors generate opposing tendencies and produce instability and permanent motion. He variously referred to capital as “the living contradiction”[44] and the “the moving contradiction.”[45]And it is often forgotten that Marx’s negation of capitalism was deeply Hegelian, meant to preserve as much as to eliminate. Marx saw capitalism as encompassing barbaric drives but also civilizing ones, frequently underlining capital’s “civilizing aspects,” its “civilizing mission,” or its “historic mission.” Among the barbaric and oppressive aspects were class hierarchy, exploitation, ruthless competition and military conquests, as well as social Darwinism and an ascetic, life denying disposition.  Capital’s civilizing thrust, however, consisted of its prodigious productivity, socialization of labour, cultural democratization, expansion of needs and of consumption. Crucially, for Marx, capital’s dynamism did not simply disrupt old hierarchies, but also opened up the possibility of itsself-abolition, creating the pre-conditions for a new, rational and humanistic, societal form.With Marx, one can therefore speak of an internal conflict taking place within capitalism between its civilizing and barbaric drives, whose outcome remains dependent on social and political struggle.

Bearing such contradictions in mind, it is possible to decipher much of the paradoxes of the reactionary discourse, its espousal anddenial of change and dynamism; itspro- andanti-capitalism; and correspondingly, also the apparent antinomies of antisemitism. An intriguing attempt to use Marx’s categories in order to dialectically decode antisemitism, especially its exterminatory, National Socialist variant, was undertaken by Moishe Postone.The late Canadian Marxist strongly chastised the left for seeing in Nazism merely a defence of capitalism, and failing to come to terms with its markedly anti-capitalist streak. The Nazis, he believed, strove to hold fast to the productive side of capitalism, its concrete side bringing into being goods and material wealth, and to discard its thieving, abstractly financial and parasitic side. And this latter side they identified with the Jews. For Postone, we have here the key for understanding the Shoah. Examining Nazi ideology in light of Marx’s categories, it turns out that they attempted to preserve the commodity’s “use-value,” its concrete, useful side, and eliminate its cumbersome, intangible and abstract “value,” embodied in money. Jews were thus eliminated since, in the antisemitic cliché, they came to represent money, the abstract side of capitalism. “Auschwitz,” Postone therefore concludes, “was a factory to ‘destroy value,’ i.e., to destroy the personifications of the abstract. Its organization was that of a fiendish industrial process, the aim of which was to ‘liberate’ the concrete from the abstract.”[46]

But while Postone was right to insist on a dialectical approach to Nazism, as well as to draw attention to its anti-capitalist side, it seems to me that his inventive hypothesis is ultimately partial, and in some ways misleading. It is over-economistic, to begin with, and neglects critical aspects of Nazi culture and politics: can Nazi antisemitism be seen primarily as a revolt against the abstract side of capitalism? In reality, such a revolt would fit much better to describe Marxist socialism, which indeed wished to create an economy geared towards the production of use-values and liberated from the compulsion to extract surplus value.The Nazis’ ambition was quite different. Much of fascist and Nazi ideology, was decidedly anti-materialistic, denigrating the pursuit of pleasure and comfort as unworthy goals.[47] This hardly squares with a supposed commitment to the concrete. And to the extent thatthe Jews, in the Nazi imaginary, were indeed linked with universalism, this had decidedly concrete, rather than abstract, social and political implications: the Jew was persecuted and exterminated by the Nazis mostly because he was seen as a revolutionary. The Nazis and fascists made no effort to move to an economy which will dispense with money, let alone with the profit motivation. In reality, their political crusade was ultimately directed against the country that threatened, at least, to do both: the USSR.This is not meant to dismiss the claims, well expressed by Postone, that the Nazis saw the Jew as, in a sense, embodying the spirit of capitalism. Yet it is important to realize that capitalism, too, played in modernity a revolutionary role, dialectically destabilizing the present order and empowering the masses. And it was this feature which vexed the fascists.

Writing in 1935, the Spanish fascist José Antonio Primo de Rivera, aristocratic founder and leader of the Falange Española, expressed his conviction that capitalism was heading towards realizing Marx’s transformative project:

[W]e are anti-Marxists because we are terrified [...] of being an inferior animal in an ant-nest. And we are terrified by it because capitalism gives us a hint of such a condition; capitalism, too, is internationalist and materialist. That is why we want neither the one nor the other; that is why we wish to avert — since we believe in their accuracy — the realization of Marx’s prophecies.[48]

Antonio’s opposition to Marx, be it noted, was embedded in antisemitism. “If the first socialists were gentlemen, almost poets,” he declared a year earlier, “socialism acquired a horrifying blackness when the figure of that Jew named Karl Marx made his appearance.”[49] Capitalism and socialism, strangely but instructively morphed into one, were denounced as the great levellers, in fact one great leveller, assuming deceptively different guises.That great leveller was modernity. And this was a very important trope in the fascist imaginary, which today has largely faded into obscurity, since a dialectical appreciation of modernity has fallen largely out of fashion, even in Marxist circles.“This Europe,” wrote Heidegger in 1935, “lies today in the great pincers between Russia on the one side and America on the other. Russia and America, seen metaphysically, are both the same.”[50]And comparable positions were defended by many other fascists, such as the Italian Julius Evola, who wrote about the mass danger represented by the “communist world and America, […] persuaded of a having a universal mission to accomplish.”[51]Drieu La Rochelle, the French fascist, was convinced that communism and Americanism are intimately interconnected. “Ford and Lenin,” he wrote, “are like two miners who are pick-axing their way toward one another along two dark tunnels.”[52]

This was the other side to the reactionary attack on modernity:  it was never simply concerned with the modern threat to past traditions, its “uprooting” thrust, its wandering away from the Heimat; no less feared was the modern aim to have humanity find abode in anew home.  Reactionaries were bent to prevent a historically new possibility: namely, that modernity might once and for all eliminate war, strife and inequality from human existence, and institute universal peace on earth. Heinrich Heine, arguably Germany’s greatest 19th-century poet, gave this hope a potent expression in many of his writings, for instance inGermany. A Winter’s Tale (1844):

Ein neues Lied, ein besseres Lied,

O Freunde, will ich euch dichten!

Wir wollen hier auf Erden schon

Das Himmelreich errichten.


A newer song, a better song,

My friends, let’s bring to birth now!

We shall proceed right here to build,

The Kingdom of Heaven on earth now.


Es wächst hienieden Brot genug

Für alle Menschenkinder,

Auch Rosen und Myrten, Schönheit und Lust,

Und Zuckererbsen nicht minder.

The soil produces bread enough

For all mankind’s nutrition,

Plus rose and myrtle, too, beauty and joy,

And sugar peas in addition.

Ja, Zuckererbsen für jedermann,

Sobald die Schoten platzen!

Den Himmel überlassen wir

Den Engeln und den Spatzen.

Yes, sugar peas for everyone

Piled high upon the barrows!

The heavens we can safely leave

To the angels and the sparrows.[53]

“I believe in progress,” he defiantly stated in 1834, “I believe that mankind is destined to be happy, and thus I have a higher opinion of the Divinity than the pious people who fancy that he created mankind only to suffer. Here on earth, by the blessings of free political and industrial institutions, I should like to establish the bliss which, in the opinion of the pious, is to begin only on the Day of Judgment, in heaven.”[54] Thisstaunch progressivism, as can be appreciated, was not the product of complacency, but an impassioned political rallying cry, meant to galvanize the forces of change and emancipation. Its power drew not simply from the utopian vista it opened up, but also from emphasizing the perversion of the present order, and recognizing that the alternative project might well prevail. Heine thus immediately added a caveat, and admitted that his “hope” might be a “foolish” one, that “perhaps mankind is destined to everlasting misery, perhaps the nations are condemned eternally to be trampled upon by despots, exploited by their henchmen, and derided by their lackeys.”[55]Heine had converted to Christianity in 1823, seeking admission into European culture, but for his countless critics on the German right, he remained forever “the Jew Heine,” a subversive and foreign spirit.[56] In Heine’s work one finds embodied the double menace represented by Jewry in the eyes of many antisemites: not simply frenetic movement but the chance of  denouement, of obtaining stability, safety and contentment.  This is the important feature of fascism thatErnst Nolte in his early studies referred to as the “opposition to transcendence.”[57] Nolte’s valuable observation has implications that most subsequent studies of fascism have unfortunately neglected to pursue – a failure that is probably related to the prevailing tendency to gainsay Marxism and construct fascism as “revolutionary”: but of course, a revolution that forecloses transcendence remains a highly paradoxical endeavour.[58]

Facing such a chiliastic vision, rootism became a fierce opponent of stasis, and championed movement. This was clearly true with regards to the “steel romanticism” championed by the Nazis, notably Joseph Goebbels:

Every time has its Romanticism, its poetic presentation of life – ours does as well. It is harder and crueller than the earlier version, but it is just as romantic. The Steel Romanticism of our time manifests itself in intoxicating actions and restless deeds in service of a great national goal, in a feeling of duty raised to the level of an unbreakable principle. We are all more or less romantics of a new German form.[59]

“It is a kind of Steel Romanticism,” he elsewhere claimed, as if engaged in direct dialogue with Heine, “that has made German life worth living: a Romanticism which does not try to escape and hide in the blue distance from the hardness of existence.”[60]Goebbels here expressed an awareness of the innovation of Nazism with regards to the romantic tradition and scholars have rightly noted that there remained little room for romantic irony or dreaminess in the Nazi inflection.[61]And yet nor should one underestimate the amount of steel employed in the original romantic alloy: already in the writings of Müller one finds an unyielding emphasis on the inevitability, indeed desirability of war, as an antidote to economic stasis and to internal strife, and Heinrich von Kleist’s nationalistic texts abound, indeed, with “intoxicating actions and restless deeds in service of a great national goal.”(Goebbels)

Fascism and Nazism therefore embraced movement; indeed, the Nazis were proud of their political essence as a “movement,” Bewegung.  Yet such a frenetic push onwards was at the same time fundamentally static.  In the artistic realm this is best exemplified, perhaps, by the celebration of movement, modern machinery, and velocity found in much Futuristic poetry and art, notably inAeropittura, the late Italian Futurist trend (roughly 1926-1940) to extoll the experience of flying and depict aeroplanes, especially engaged in destruction and warfare. This was quintessentialmodernist art, yet one that studiously left out a vital element ofmodernity, for whom movement is nothing if it eliminatesprogress. A movement shorn of a progressive goal is simply vortex (which was of course the centre of Vorticism, the proto-Futuristic movement formed by the reactionary writer and artist Wyndham Lewis). Another illustration of suchinert dynamism,irretrievably leashed to identity, is provided by the 1933 Nazi propaganda filmHitlerjunge Quex [Hitler Youth Quex, director Hans Steinhoff], recounting the story of Berlin working-class youngster Heini Völker who joins the ranks of the Nazis in the waning days of the Weimar Republic and dies as a martyr to the cause.The workers, including Heini’s communist, unemployed father, abhor the Nazis, yet Heini is magically drawn to their ranks. One of the main attractions they offer is a chance to move, to travel the world.At a pivotal scene, the Nazi officer has a conversation with the communist father, in the presence of the young and eager son, which will end by drawing the vulgar, but at bottom good hearted and patriotic communist, away from internationalism and into the national fold.The scene begins with the Nazi sentimentally praising young people’s desire to roam, “run off and join trappers and gypsies.” Heini smiles rapturously, and the implication of such sentences is unmistakable: by joining the Nazis, he will get a chance to see the world as part of the German army of conquest. The father, however, is resistant and needs more persuading. There follows a short dialogue between Nazi and communist, which will open the latter’s eyes to his true Heimat:

Communist: Where do I belong? With my class comrades, that’s where.

Nazi: You mean the International?

C: Of course, the International.

N: Where were you born?

C: Well, in Berlin.

N: Where is Berlin?

C: On the Spree river.

N: [amused] On the Spree, of course. But where is that? In which country?

C: Well, in Germany, naturally.

N: In Germany! Exactly. In our Germany. You think about that.

The matter is thus settled, universalism is blocked, and nationalism is vindicated. A natural extension of this dialogue would have changed the conclusion altogether, had the scriptwriter allowed the communist father to ask in retort, “And where is Germany?” But this would have defeated the film’s pedagogic purpose. Rootismthus accepts movement, indeed encourages it, but only within the pre-ordained boundaries of national identitarianism and in fundamental opposition to the radical openness of modernity. 

The dialectics of history must be frozen, forestalling any qualitative sublation: only quantitative change is possible in the sense of more “living space,” for the German, and less, or even no living space for the non-German.  The deadly blow delivered by Nazism to progressive universalism can be appreciated by juxtaposing two historical pronouncements, by German thinkers of Jewish origins. The first is by Heine, who in 1843 hoped that with the proliferation of trains and international travel, “the shabby heroes of the past, the old crutch needing supporters of exclusionary nationalism, the invalids and incurables, will soon disappear from our sight. [...] Due to the railways space is killed, and we are left only with time.”[62]Ernst Bloch’s diagnosis, in 1935, sadly established the exact reverse: “‘Volkstum’ banishes time from history, indeed history itself: what remains is space and organic fate.”[63]

Bloch’s incisive observation should help to counter the efforts to square the circle and situate fascism and Nazism decisively within modernity. A notable case in point is Roger Griffin’s relatively recent claim that Nazism needs to be seen as a case of “rooted modernism.”[64]  Griffin takes a resolute stand against those scholars who insist on the “outdated assumptions” that the Third Reich was motivated by a “regressive animus against modernity, progress, and the emancipation of the human spirit.”[65]A survey of Nazi architecture provides him with the occasion for highlighting what he regards as the revolutionary and forward pressing thrust of the Third Reich.  And yet his analysis strangely confirms Bloch’s point by focusing on matters relating to size, form, style, matter, and quantity and leaving out well-nigh unaddressed all qualitative considerations. Griffin’s focus, in short, is on Nazi space. Hitler, the reader is typically reminded, “expressed appreciation of steel and glass architecture,” as if this could somehow bely the Führer’s reactionary commitments.[66]Elsewhere it is asserted that the “new civic structures” of Third Reich’s “were to express in their gargantuan scale and use of huge blocks of granite, not nostalgia for the past, but rather an evocation of timeless values, a secular, national and racial eternity conceived as a futural project.”[67] Time-less, indeed, just as stipulated by Bloch.

The effort to cast fascism as revolutionary draws on the misleading, interchangeable usage made of two terms which are vastly different, “modernism” and “modernity.” Far from being substitutable, modernism was an artistic and social outlook that regularly expressed a fundamental loss of faith in modernity, seen as a time of decay, fragmentation, anarchy and levelling. Modernism was thus quite often an attempt totranscend modernity. Griffin himself, in an earlier study, rightly spoke of “a modernist rejection of Modernity.”[68] Yet at present he construes fascist modernism as anally ofModernity. This blurring of the distinction between means and ends, form and substance, technology and axiology, finds expression in such arguments as the following one:“Nazi architecture was a triumph of the latest technology, design, and logistics, even though the gargantuan supply of raw materials and inhuman levels of produc­tivity it demanded could only be supplied by slave labour.”[69] Notice how the inhumanity of Nazism is here re-written as a by-product of its supposedly revolutionary goals, as if “slave labour” was an unavoidable by-product of the Nazi project, rather than a foundational component of its perverse ideological and social negation of modernity in its universalist and egalitarian aspirations.

The same obfuscation is in evidence when Griffin claims that “the significance of the regime’s qualified embrace of the modern­ist writers Gottfried Benn and Ernst Jünger, of the modernist musicians Rich­ard Wagner and Richard Strauss, and the modernist philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, still tends to be overlooked, along with the profoundly futural, utopian dynamic of so much of Nazi culture in practice.”[70] But what exactly is the supposedly “overlooked significance” of the Nazi embrace of such “modernists”? Surely not a cause to rethink Nazi hostility to modernity? We have already seen what Heidegger thought of modernity, so a quick reminder of Nietzsche's position might be in order:a “modernist” or not, the German thinker consistently used the term “modern ideas” with utmost disdain.  And what were, for him, such ideas? Everything associated with democracy, socialism, plebeianism, “18th-century ideas,” and, at the root of them all, “the doctrine of equality, [...] the ‘modern idea’ par excellence.”[71] “Modernism,” in summary, might well be “rooted,” but a “rooted modernity,” re-legitimizing slavery and inequality, would be a contradiction in terms.[72] Nietzsche’s ideas, it should be pointed out, arefundamental in our context in two additional senses: firstly, his doctrine of the “eternal recurrence” is surely the most significant conceptual foreshadowing of fascist temporality, providing the archetypal example of irredeemably circular change, i.e. no change at all: “Everything breaks, everything is joined anew; the same houses of being builds itself eternally. Everything parts, everything greets itself again; the ring of being remains loyal to itself eternally.”[73] Secondly, while Nietzsche's attitudes to Jews and Judaism were very complex, he was immensely influential in spreading the image of the Jews as the revolutionary people par excellence, the heart and soul of the egalitarian “slave revolt” of modernity, embarking on a “huge and incalculably disastrous initiative,” in which the masses are incited to rebel against their masters: “Nothing which has been done on earth against ‘the noble’, ‘the mighty’, ‘the masters’ and ‘the rulers’, is worth mentioning compared with what the Jews have done against them.”[74]

While lamenting the supposed modern “uprooting of all beings from being” (Heidegger) Steel Romanticism in fact radically cut off humanity from any hope of finding its way back home. As insightfully suggested by William H. F. Altman in the introduction to his study of Being and Time, German existentialism found its home in the war fields of the First World War,where all meaning was drained from the existence of millions of combatants.  For such millions, the war was a total absurdity, as expressed in the song “we’re here because we’re here,” sang by British soldiers in the trenches to the wistful tune of Auld Lang Syne.  Yet, argues Altman, from the point-of-view of the existentialistic reactionaries, the troops were only “faux-existentialists,” since their song was a way of clinging, however desperately, to the notion of meaning in human life, which might someday be restored. Their song was thus a denunciation of the war.  By contradistinction, for such writers as Ernst Jünger and Heidegger, the war was not barren but pregnant with absurdity; deceitful and unworthy was the peace that preceded it. Such authors, like the German far-right they represented, thus turned the war into the paradigm of authentic existence, were one no longer cowardly evades death as is the habit of the modern masses, but lives in joyous anticipation of death.Both Jünger and Heidegger therefore worked assiduously to turn the post-war time into aninter-war time.[75]

As against the charge that modernity uproots humanity, one could argue the very opposite: modernity represents an effort to furnish humanity with a newer, more comfortable and more habitable home than it previously had. As Bertolt Brecht once defiantly claimed: “In the asphalt city I’m at home. From the very start / Provided with every last sacrament: / With newspapers. And tobacco. And brandy / To the end mistrustful, lazy and content.”[76] Indeed, one might go still further, and claim that modernity’s effort is to furnish humanity with something it never previously had, a true home where it might gather after its historical wanderings in the provinces of poverty, exploitation, and war.

During the 20th-century, the reactionary and fascist denigration of the USSR and the USA, and the frequent claim of a fundamental affinity between them, supposedly running much deeper than their surface level antagonisms, reflect the fact that these were the two modern countries par excellence, the ones founded on a consciously non-rootist, pluralist principle.The arch-prophet of counter-modern identitarianism in our time, Alain de Benoist, therefore averred in the mid-1970s that America is “the capital ofneo-Marxism,”[77]and approvingly cited left-wing author, Jean-Marie Domenach’s claim that “the USA is the most communist country in the world.”[78]Both countrieswere irredeemably universalistic in their founding myths, both affirmed the future, rather than the past, and both were centred on the project of a new home for humanity – not just for a single ethnic or religious group.Notice that the enormous shortfalls characterizing both of these states in terms of inequality, repression, unfreedom, militarism, racism and so on and so forth were not the target of such critiques, or were at most used to boost the main line of the arguments, like boxing gloves covering the naked fists to make the punches appear legitimate: both countries were taken to task not for their numerous deceits and deficits but for theirpremises andpromises. The Soviet Union became an international symbol for a working-class state, and hence was met with implacable hostility on the part of the wealthy and privileged and with great hope on that of the toiling masses. This was brilliantly reflected inVladimir Mayakovsky’s 1929 poem My Soviet Passport, where he describes the way the customofficials handle his travelling document “like a razor, [...] like a rattlesnake huge and long with at least 20 fangs poison-tipped,” whereas “The porter's eyes give a significant flick (I'll carry your baggage  for nix, mon ami...),” and concludes: “You now: read this and envy, I'm a citizen of the Soviet Socialist Union!”[79]Nor is the search hard when we look for a poetic expression of the US American promise to provide a home for the destitute  of all countries: "Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" These celebrated lines, from Emma Lazarus’ The New Colossus (1883), which constitute something of an unofficial US hymn, were appropriately written by a Jewish, indeed socialist, woman, who also happened to be a translator of Heine’s poems to English.[80]

The radical openness of modernity which was also a quest for a home that is not already given, a home predicated on uprooting and immigration rather than rootedness and love of the soil, finds expression in many US American blues narratives. Against the view of the blues as an emanation of the deep, exotic South, a fascinating atavism that provides an escape from the sophistication of modernity, many blues texts actually expressed a resolve to escape to modernity.[81]They are, in a sense, the very reverse of the idyllic Heimat narratives of counter-modernity, celebrating the blood and the soil, for the soil was enslaving, and the blood it demanded was that of the slaves, or later, the sharecropping serfs. There is therefore a significant parallel between the modern Jewish experience and that of the African-Americans, both underpinned by mass immigrations and a quest for home.One expression of such yearning would be the 1936 lines by the iconic early blues artist, Robert Johnson, who lived most of his short life in the Mississippi Delta: “Oh, baby, don't you want to go? / Back to the land of California / To my sweet home Chicago.” The point, of course, is that Johnson calls Chicago his “sweet home” although he has never been there.[82]

Modernity and Assimilation: Concluding Observations

Let us, in conclusion, examine a little more closely the nature of modernity’s efforts to furnish wandering humanity at long last with a home, paying special attention to the Jewish perspective.  The most sustained engagement with Marxism and the Jewishquestion is surely Enzo Traverso’s study juxtaposing the two subject-matters. Traverso writes from a position internal to Marxism, yet his account of the ways leading Marxists have approached the Jewish plight is highly critical, pointing to their many vacillations, misunderstandings, and blind-spots. Throughout the book, but especially in itsconcluding chapters, Traverso associates these weaknesses mostly with the reputed blemishes of Marxist teleology, the affirmation of modernity, the optimism and universalism of the Enlightenment legacy, and, most importantly, to a pernicious belief in progress.Ultimately, these doctrinaire tenets have blinded the enormous majority of Marxists to the specificity of the Jewish question, to the innovations of a distinctly modern form of antisemitism, and to legitimate claims of Jewish otherness, which he expressly ties with modern “identity politics.”[83] The author’s rather exceptional heroes within Marxism are the late Trotsky, Walter Benjamin, and following in the latter’s steps, the post-Second World War writings of the Frankfurt School. It was there that the long-due task was finally performed of emphatically disengaging from progressive and modernist illusions, and returning, to one extent or another, to the pre-Marxist socialism of a radical, romantically inspired critique of bourgeois civilization.[84]As evidence, Traverso cites Walter Benjamin’s preference of Fourier over German social democracy,[85] and later critically claims that “Marxism after Marx had largely renounced the critique of civilization begun by Rousseau, Fourier and Blanqui, in order to celebrate ‘progress,’”[86] without mentioning the venomous antisemitism of these French socialists, compared to which Marx’s youthful snide remarks on Judaism appear quite harmless. A surprising omission, in a book dealing with “the Jewish Question.”

While Traverso’s study is an invaluable scholarly resource, and many of its specific criticisms of Marxist authors are well-informed and judicious, it seems to me that such overarching interpretation has some unsettling implications, which it would be good to gain awareness of. Traverso’s shibboleth, as already sampled, is the Marxist belief in progress, which repeatedly comes under attack. Yet, while it may have certain validity with regards to some variants of complacent optimism such as the Whig view of history, the main proponents of progress, even outside the Marxist camp – think of Condorcet, Hegel or Heine – can scarcely be reproached with a naïve buoyancy that lends itself to passivity and a renunciation of political struggle. Theirs was simply theaffirmation that history offers humanity a path towards greater emancipation and that, contrary to the pessimist and quietist beliefs, human fate can improve – a radical and emancipatory proposition in its own right.Awareness of the enormous obstacles to progress and its powerful enemies is not lacking in any of these authors, and it certainly cannot be ascribed to committed revolutionaries such as Marx and Engels – just think of the latter’s incredibly accurate prediction, in 1893, of the perils of European militarism and frantic armament, and his passionate warning, some twenty years in advance, against a global conflagration that will cause unheard of destruction.[87] 

Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, Walter Benjamin’s critique of progress did not simply, or primarily, reflect his engagement with the theories of German social democrats. As Traverso himself points out, Benjamin’s interest in politics and consequently his political knowledge were never his strong suits. Rather, such opposition was grounded in his long-time affiliation with romanticism, again duly noted by Traverso. However, the meaning of the vast romantic debt on Benjamin’s part to such authors as Nietzsche, Sorel, or Baudelaire, is not properly interrogated. It is acknowledged that some Frankfurt School authors came to civilizational conclusions in some ways akin to that of German reactionaries: for instance, Günther Anders’ “ontological conservative” position is linked to an “Heideggerian matrix,” yet this doesn’t seem to pose a serious objection, and in fact rebounds in Anders’ favour, allowing him to yield “the most consistent effort to rethink Marxism under the dark light of Auschwitz.”[88] Paradoxically, progressive Marxism is chastised for its presumedpolitical flaws, which reflect its weakness vis-à-vis modern antisemitism. And yet a left-wing cured of such lingering progressivism remains decidedly “melancholic” and impotent.[89] Indeed, one cannot but wonder what socialism can even mean as a political and normative project once purged of telos, universalism and progress.

The upshot of this conceptual framework is a theory that criticizes “assimilation” and upholds identity politics, as expressed by Walter Benjamin and later exponents, some of whom are unrelated to Marxism, such as the influential American scholar of Judaism, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi. Gramsci, for example, is criticized on account ofhaving “reformulated the canonical Marxist approach to the Jewish Question, which identified emancipation with assimilation,” which explains why “his conclusions wereas blind as those of Bauer and Kautsky: in his eyes, anti-Semitism was a vestige of the past, not a possible face of modernity.”[90]

Now, a critique of the paradigm of assimilation is not without merit, and the right of communities and individuals to maintain their beliefs and customs without thereby in any way forfeiting their right to complete civic and human equality cannot be disputed.However, what does “assimilation” mean when it comes to the Marxist tradition, of whom Gramsci is one representative? Traverso neglects to ask the all-important question: Jewish assimilation intowhat? Certainly not Italian-ness, Germanness, Russianness, or Polishness, in the respective cases of Gramsci, Marx, Trotsky and Luxemburg, let alone into Christianity. It was an assimilation into a project of universalism which is thus better described ashumanization.

Countering de Maistre, this tradition believed that nationality and a particular ethnic identity was not, or at least should not be, people’s ultimate point-of-reference, but an appendage to one’s humanity, an important one perhaps, but also a potentially dangerous and toxic one. Humanity was not an abstraction which diluted identity,butin fact identity was an abstraction which threatened to swallow up humanity’s concrete potentialities.Or, to piggyback on a previous suggestion, humanity could be seen as a new, modern, superior form of identity, which need not cancel out other, more local and parochial affiliations, but which should be placed in priority to them. Admittedly, and here Traverso and other critics have a strong case, this is a highly delicate manoeuvre and most Marxism can indeed be found guilty of not paying sufficient attention to the challenges such universalistic humanism raises, on both practical and ethical grounds. But the conclusion is not to chastise Marxism in favor of identitarianism, for surely, what can be described as blind-spots in former’s sight, must perforce constitute the latter’sentirefield of vision.

Humanization reflected both the need and the desire of people of all nations and religions, not just Jews. And in fact, Jews, as individuals of a hated and persecuted minority, could be regarded as especially benefiting from such process. Moreover, the “assimilation” required by the Jews was into a new identity, which could in some important sense be described as particularly favourable to many Jews, reflecting their historical experience – as nomadic, exiled, ironic, urban, and universalistic. Thus,for many anti-universalistic non-Jews humanization represented, if anything, their own assimilation as non-Jews into a fundamentallyJewish modernity. There is a telling story recounted in 1899 by Drumont about the inception of his life-long antisemitic crusade. It was, he tells his readers, largely the result of conversations he had years before with an old Jew, who “had a terrible fear of French antisemitism,” which was then only making its baby steps:

As early as 1875, a Jew who is a little forgotten today, but who was then almost famous [...], Alexandre Weill, explained to me that France should have the fate of Poland and that it would be good, in the best interests of humanity, that the French, dispersed and without homeland like the Poles, will go and spread throughout the world the general truths on civilization and progress.[91]

Drumont was deeply distraught by such prospect of modern homelessness and rootlessness, by the very thought of Frenchmen assuming the role of wandering Jews spreading the universalist message around the globe, and he concludes that “maybe it wasn't worth it to have cut the neck of the descendant of forty kings to be ruled by the Rothschilds [...], and to be told by an old Jew, walking his little white, curly dogs, that France would end up like Poland. This is how, without even being aware of it, the work of liberation was germinating, bit by bit, in my heart.”[92]

Seen thus, assimilation into modernity on the part of many Jews was not an act of self-denial or self-hatred, but of self-affirmation. They did not have to suppress the religious, traditionalist Jew ensconced in their bosom, for he or she simply wasn’t there. And if some Jews embraced Jewish religion or tradition and found in them important spiritual resources, as Benjamin did with the kabbalah, this was a perfectly legitimate choice on their part, but one that doesn’t reflect either positively on them or badly on those who did not take it. Traverso writes that “unlike the great majority of Jewish Socialists and Communists [...], who were completely assimilated, [Benjamin] did not deny his religious identity.”[93]But there was no “denial” on such Jews' part –Rosa Luxemburg is mentioned as an example: they were faithful to their non-religion, nor were they necessarily “assimilated” in the sense of taking on a foreign identity. They found in humanist universalism their home, and did so in a way which was often highly defiant vis-à-vis their surroundings. Andfor that matter, nor should one accept the implication that Benjamin was particularly faithful to Judaism when immersing himself in the kabbalah and in Franz Rosenzweig’s theories of Jewish redemption.Such an identity was very much a modern one, an adopted litany, an invented tradition, if one wishes, in a way which is not necessarily different to, say, Madonna’s discovery of the kabbalah. One can actually argue that all Jewish tradition (like all tradition) is artificial and historically contingent: just think about the distinctly modern origins of Jewish “orthodoxy” and Chassidism. These are certainly legitimate movements and persuasions, but not to be seen as paradigmatic of authenticity and self-loyalty, unless one risks sliding down the rootist slope. 

When modernity is here described as “Jewish,” it would be important to warn against any essentialism. Jewish is as Jewish does. And if Judaism can accommodate universalism, so it can identity politics. Witness Yerushalmi’s argument that Jews are primarily a nation of “memory,” whose immersion in modern “history” has taken a heavy toll on their timeless national identity.[94]Published in the early 1980s, this influential book can be seen as an important moment in the noticeable intellectual withdrawal from the universalism of modernity and the rise of contemporary identitarianism.[95] Traverso appears to be in fundamental sympathy with such a move,[96] but given the enormous dangers attending identitarianism its wisdom and ultimate beneficence might be questioned, not least for Jews.

Rootism, no matter under what guise, continues to pose an acute danger. The only viable antidote remains a resolute defence of modernity, universalism and Enlightenment values, that entire political and axiological complex that the rootists are keen on rooting out. Marxism remains the unsurpassable defender of modernity, both in its universalism and its humanistic commitments, and in its lucid critique of the merely capitalist, sham universalism, also known as “globalization,” which is never truly and reliably emancipatory. Walter Benjamin’s famous expectations for a Messiah that might “enter at any moment” were predicated on the conviction that Marx’s “locomotive of world history” must be stopped, that “what characterizes revolutionary classes at their moment of action is the awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode.”[97] Paradoxically, as we have seen, such was the awareness, precisely, of counter-revolutionary classes.  Busily at work derailing world history, it is they who have activated “the emergency brake”; their opponents must make sure that the travel continues.


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[1] See Habermas 1987, Hess 2002, pp. 20-22.

[2]Heidegger 2017, p. 191.

[3]Werner May, Deutscher Nationalkatechismus: Dem Jungen Deutschen in Schule und Beruf (Breslau, 1934), quoted in Confino 2014, p. 58.

[4]See Barzilay, 1956 .

[5]For an excellent, in-depth survey and insightful analysis of the debate that took place within the German context, see Hess 2002.

[6]Hertzberg 1968, p. 10, p. 367.

[7] Hertzberg 1968, p. 5.

[8]Liberles 2012, p. 112.

[9]Hertzberg 1968, p. 313.

[10]Müller 2012, pp. 206-207.

[11]Maistre 1891, Volume 1, pp. 74-75.

[12]Wilson 2011, p. 29.

[13] Schmitt 2007, p. 53.

[14] Cf. Volkov 2003, p. 38. For the eventual socialist rejection of antisemitism, see Volkov 2002, pp. 122– 129; and Lindemann 1997, pp. 158–174; but, for a more damning account of the anti-Jewish stereotypes lingering among Socialists in Imperial Germany, see Fischer 2010; for my own discussion of the historical difference between left-wing and right-wing antisemitic arguments, and the gradual weakening of the former and strengthening of the latter, see Landa 2018, pp. 376-379.

[15] As quoted in Hess 2002, pp. 188-189.

[16]In Arnim 2008, pp. 153-154.

[17] Brentano 1963, Volume 3, p. 991.

[18] Ibid.

[19]See Hertz 2007, p. 80. It should be noted, however, that von Arnim claimed some years later that the decision to exclude Christians of Jewish origins passed by majority decision, against his view. Moreover, not all members of the Society revealed the same anti-Jewish zeal: Fichte, for example, opposed the anti-Jewish and anti-philistine motion.

[20] Hoffmann 1982, p. 402.

[21] Hoffmann 1982, p. 377.

[22] Hoffmann 1982, p. 356.

[23] Hoffmann 1982, pp. 374-375.

[24] Hoffmann 1982, p. 375.

[25]Müller 2012, pp. 78-79.

[26]Müller 2012, pp. 208-209.

[27]Müller 2012, pp. 212-213.

[28]Ascher, Location 458.

[29]See Hentges 1999, p. 110.

[30] In Weiss 1996, p. 71. This study provides a still useful vindication of the Enlightenment, and identifies its significant weakness in Germany. 

[31] Arendt 2007, p. 99.

[32] Arendt 2007, p. 97. Interestingly, in the early 1950s Arendt took a considerably less grave view of the Society, and curtly referred to Brentano’s anti-Jewish/philistine satire, formerly viewed as extremelydangerous, as “a very witty paper.” (Arendt 1994, p. 62). This difference might be a reflection of the somewhat neo-aristocratic attitudes manifested in Arendt’s later writings, and of the fact that at that stage she no longer interpreted modern antisemitism as a distinctly German creation, but as a pan-European phenomenon, as well as one which mirrored the sentiments of the masses, rather than the anti-modernity of the upper-classes. For an intriguing exploration of Arendt’s trajectory, arguing that her later production bears the deep imprint of Heidegger’s thought, see Faye 2016.

[33] Fourier 2008, p. 252.

[34] Fourier 2008, p. 232.

[35]Drumont 1899, p. 8.

[36] Drumont 1886, p. 27.

[37]Barrès 1902, p. 152.

[38]Barrès 1902, pp. 12-13.

[39]Barrès 1911, pp. 319-320.

[40]Arnim, Kindle, p. 975.

[41]Drumont 1886, pp. 9-10.


[43] Hitler 1999, p. 136.

[44] Marx 1993, p. 706

[45]Marx 1993, p. 421.

[46]Postone 1980, p. 114.

[47]See Landa 2017.

[48]Primo de Rivera 2004, pp.  484–485.

[49]Primo de Rivera 2004, p. 231.

[50]Heidegger 2000, p. 40.

[51]Evola 1995, p. 357.

[52]In Soucy 1979, p. 126.

[53]Heine 1997, Vol. 4, p. 578. The translation is from Heine 1982, p. 484.

[54]Heine 1993, p. 209.

[55] Ibid.

[56]Avineri 2017.

[57]Nolte 1984, p. 515.

[58]For an influential effort to stress the revolutionary character of fascism, in express opposition to the Marxist view, see Roger Griffin’s claim that “fascism had an autonomous and genuine revolutionary agenda,” indeed one that should allow us to draw a certain correlation between Marxism and fascism (Griffin 2008, pp. 62-63).

[59]In Dennis 2012, p. 176.

[60]Dennis 2012, p. 177.

[61]For instance, Dennis 2012.

[62]Heine 1997, Vol. 5, pp. 448-449.

[63]Bloch 1962, p. 97.

[64]Griffin 2018.

[65]Griffin 2018, p. 27.

[66]Griffin 2018, p. 24.

[67]Griffin 2018, p. 16.

[68]Griffin 2007, p. 62.

[69]Griffin 2018, p. 30.This is said in approving paraphrase of the claims of another scholar, Iain Boyd Whyte.

[70]Griffin 2018, p. 25.

[71]Nietzsche 1990, p. 113.

[72]An insufficient distinction between modernity and modernism is also a weakness inMarshall Berman’s classic study (Berman 1988). While still a vital reading, and compelling in its passionate defense of modernity as an ongoing project of human emancipation, it creates confusion when, for instance, Marx and Nietzsche, despite their acknowledged differences, are nonetheless lumped together as two modernists.   This obscures the fact that, while both were certainly reacting to the experience of modernity, Marx’s critical project was an effort to complete modernity, enable its social and axiological aspirations to come to fruition; Nietzsche, by contrast, aimed to prevent any such possibility, planning an “attentat on two millennia of anti-nature” (Nietzsche 1992, p. 51).

[73] Nietzsche 2006, p. 175.

[74]Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 18.On Nietzsche's impact on German antisemitism until the end of the Nazi period, see Mittmann 2006. For a painstaking analysis of Nietzsche’s own attitudes to Jews, see Holub 2015.

[75] William H. F. Altman, Martin Heidegger and the First World war. Being and Time as Funeral Oration, Plymouth: Lexington, 2012.

[76]Brecht 1979, p. 107.

[77] De Benoist, Locchi, 2015, p. 162.

[78] De Benoist, Locchi, 2015, p. 167.

[79]Mayakovsky 1929.

[80] Lazarus 2002, p. 233.

[81]See Elijah Wald’s thought-provoking study: Wald 2004.

[82]As far as one can tell, since the facts of his biography can only be very intermittently established. Johnson did travel to the north of the USA and even to Canada in 1938.

[83] Traverso 2019, p. 219. The book is a revised edition of a work originally appearing in French in the 1980s.

[84]Traverso 2019, p. 165.

[85]Traverso 2019,p. 167.

[86]Traverso 2019, p. 200.

[87]Engels 1990.

[88]Traverso 2019,p. 200.

[89]As discussed at some length in another of Traverso’s books: Traverso 2016.

[90]Traverso 2019, p. 142.

[91] Drumont 1899, p. 46.

[92] Drumont 1899, p. 47.

[93] Traverso 2019, p. 163.

[94]Yerushalmi 1982.

[95]Or consider the comparable claim that the French Revolution “granted a significant liberation” to the Jews, but “it cost them their identity and their presence in the world.” (Trigano 1990, p. 185).

[96]Traverso 2019, pp. 218-219.

[97]Benjamin 2003, p. 395

Auschwitz and Hiroshima

Günther Anders

Enzo Traverso. Translated by David Fernbach

In a long autobiographical interview given to Mathias Greffrath in 1979, Günther Anders (Stern) indicated four major turning points that had marked his intellectual itinerary. First of all the Great War, which he had witnessed while still an adolescent and from which he learned what a massacre of millions of people was like: he would never forget the spectacle of mutilated soldiers and humiliation inflicted on civilians that he had witnessed in Alsace. Then Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in 1933: the event that forced him into exile. Finally, two great, almost contemporary tragedies, consummated during the Second World War, which he learned about in the United States in 1945: the genocide of the Jews in Europe and the atom bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.[1] These events shaped his sensitivity, his vocation as a philosopher and intellectual, his thinking and perhaps even his style. The last one, the nuclear destruction of the Japanese cities, marked in his eyes the beginning of a new era, a sort of ‘zero hour’ (Stunde Null) for humanity, which discovered for the first time the concrete possibility of its own annihilation. From that moment on, Anders decided to devote the rest of his life to denouncing this terrible threat, conducting his battle like an isolated and unheard Cassandra, but always tenacious. A prophet of despair, Anders did not act as a representative of a community or a spokesman for a political movement, but only as a committed intellectual, an exile by necessity and a ‘citizen of the world’ by choice: first in Paris, then in New York, Los Angeles and finally Vienna, cities and countries that were never his true home. But ‘citizen of the world’ is not an entirely appropriate definition, one should probably speak of a ‘man without a world’ (Mensch ohne Welt), using the formula he himself had forged to indicate a tradition initiated by Kafka, Brecht, Döblin and Grosz, to which he implicitly subscribed.[2]


This piece is being made available as a preprint edition of the double-volume Marxism and the Critique of Antisemitism special issue of Historical Materialism. Further additions will still be made before then. The final published version of this text will be made available on the Brill website in the coming months. We ask that citations refer to the Brill edition.All Illustrations are by Natalia Podpora.


His Jewishness, however, remained the primordial source of his conscious and proclaimed Heimatloskeit, a source that he never sought to conceal and to which he indeed returned several times during his life, making it the subject of critical reflection. It is true that he never renounced his pseudonym – imposed on him in the Weimar years by Herbert Ihering, editor of theBerliner Börsen-Curier, the newspaper for which he wrote as a journalist and literary critic – with a less Jewish sound than his real name, Stern. But after all, this borrowed name – Anders means ‘other’ in German – summed up very well his status as a foreigner and stateless person, his ‘acosmia’.

Exile and Hitler’s ‘final solution’ had thus prepared him to recognise the historical break symbolised by Hiroshima. It was the ‘non-Jewish Jew’ Anders who interpreted the twentieth century by placing it under the sign of catastrophe, an irreversible catastrophe with no return. In 1978, he dedicated a painful essay to his Jewish identity in which, through a simple anecdote, he indicated the web of threads linking Auschwitz to Hiroshima, the extermination of the Jews and the threat of the destruction of humanity. In 1958, Anders had been in Japan, in Kyoto’s market square, speaking to an audience that included several Buddhist monks. He said that the tragedy of Hiroshima concerned everyone, since it could now be repeated on a global scale, affecting the entire planet. He felt then that his words were suggested to him by the ‘prophets of doom of the Old Testament’, pioneers of a noble lineage in which he did not hesitate to include the figures of Jesus and Karl Marx.[3]

In the same autobiographical conversation with Mathias Greffrath, Anders acknowledged his debt to the ‘Jewish-German symbiosis’, the cultural universe in which he was formed. This was first and foremost a matter of language – he had written a few essays in French and English during his exile but admitted that he could only express all the nuances of his thought in German – and a congenitally non-conformist spirit. The legacy of assimilation, which had placed German Jews in a singular position, somewhere between religiosity and atheism, was perceived by Anders as the source of an exceptional freedom of mind. Although the surrounding anti-Semitism prevented them for ever forgetting that they were Jews, they often proclaimed their atheism and strongly asserted their attachment to the tradition of the Aufklärung, thus giving rise to the ‘tradition of anti-traditionalism’.[4]

Born in 1902 in Breslau, Silesia, son of child psychology professor Wilhelm Stern, cousin of Walter Benjamin and later the husband of Hannah Arendt from 1929 to 1936, Günther Anders belongs to the last generation of the German-Jewish intelligentsia from the Wilhelmine Empire, the only one to have been formed in the Weimar Republic. His father was a typical representative of liberal and assimilated Judaism who had hailed the acquittal of Captain Dreyfus as a triumph of justice. He did not attend synagogue but had given up a university professorship out of dignity, refusing to submit to the ‘small formality’ of converting to Protestantism, the favourite loophole for Jews in those years to achieve a semblance of honour and respectability. During the 1920s, Anders studied philosophy at various German universities, from Hamburg to Heidelberg, passing through Freiburg, where he followed the teaching of Cassirer, Husserl, Tillich and especially Heidegger. Hans Jonas, with whom he was close friends in Freiburg, recognised in him ‘the aura of genius’.[5] Like Benjamin, Anders too was forced to give up a university career – among the disparagers of his thesis on the philosophy of music was Adorno, a young Privatdozent at Frankfurt University, who found it too Heideggerian and too superficial in musical terms[6] – and settled in Berlin, where he began to work as a literary critic. He wrote mainly for the Berliner Börsen-Curier, to which he had been introduced by Brecht, while his wife worked on a biography of Rahel Levin Varnhagen. This condition of marginal intellectual left a permanent mark on his philosophical reflection and the style of his works.

In 1929, before an audience including Hannah Arendt, Theodor W. Adorno, Paul Tillich and Karl Mannheim, Anders delivered a presentation on the ‘acosmia of man’ (Weltfremdheit des Menschen), which he would revise a few years later for two articles published in French in the journalRecherches philosophiques (the first of which was translated by Emmanuel Levinas).[7] In these texts – which seem to have exerted a certain influence on the formation of Sartrean existentialism – Anders clearly situates himself within a Heideggerian philosophical horizon. The ontology of Sein und Zeit remains the background of concepts such as ‘non-identification’ or ‘freedom’, through which he defines the ways in which man belongs to the world and the discovery of his intrinsic limits, i.e. the limits of a being who ‘experiences himself as a being not-posited-by-himself’, leading to an inevitable feeling of ‘shame’, easily recognisable as a ‘shame of origin’. The personal touch that Anders added to this diagnosis was the search for a ‘spirit of flight’ as a way out of this existential condition of alienation. What is most striking about this text is the fact that even before his exile, in the twilight of Weimar, the young philosopher seemed to be plotting his destiny as aheimatlos intellectual – ‘rootless’ or ‘free-floating’ (freischwebend) in Mannheim’s definition.[8]

During the first months of 1933, at the beginning of his stay in Paris, Anders wrote ‘Learsi’, a story in which, by using a literary metaphor, he portrayed the condition of the exile and took stock of Jewish assimilation in Germany. Like Kafka’s characters, Learsi (Israel in reverse) has no clearly defined origins: all we know is that he comes from a distant land, Bocotia, and his behaviour reveals a deep-seated desire to live in Topilia, the country where he has settled and where everyone regards him as a foreigner. Entering a hotel on a stormy night, Learsi tries in vain to obtain a room, but all have been occupied for a long time. However, attracted and encouraged by the ‘signboard of freedom and the great world’[9] above the entrance, he decides to stay, even though he does not have his own room. He settles between a storeroom and a service room, and establishes friendly relations with all the residents, from staff to customers. His aim is to make people forget his foreign origins and be finally accepted no longer as a tolerated guest but as a full-fledged resident. Of course, his status is quite uncomfortable, but it possesses some advantages: the residents have only their own rooms, while Learsi seems to inhabit the whole hotel. This belonging, however, is ultimately illusory. ‘To belong and truly cease to be a foreigner, you need two things: the part and the whole’.[10] What for the other guests is a completely banal place – their residence – becomes for Learsi a veritable conquest. His identification with this place is all the stronger, as he has never really possessed it and has always been regarded as an intruder. In an unfortunate incident, he is accused in the end of stealing the sign of freedom and thrown out of the hotel,[11] forced to resume his nomadic path of statelessness.

Anders was aware of the danger of National Socialism as early as 1928, and one of the few who took a book like Mein Kampf seriously.[12] When Hitler came to power in early 1933, he had already written the first draft of a novel, Die molussische Katakombe, which remained unpublished until his death.[13] Written in the same allegorical style as ‘Learsi’, this antifascist literary work describes the transmission of memory between the victims of a terror regime. As in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the older prisoner teaches the younger one a parable, a fable that he must share with his successors in turn, to preserve the spirit of freedom and prepare for revolt. Beyond the limitations of this first literary attempt – a political-philosophical apologia broadly inspired by Brecht – its strength lies in its denunciation of fascism, described in the guise of the imaginary country of Molussia. The novel, in a line that Orwell would develop, was prevented from publication by Kiepenheuer in Berlin by the coming to power of the Nazis. It finally appeared only in 1992, the year of Anders’s death, although he spent most of his three years in Paris working on it. It seems that Manès Sperber, at that time in charge of an émigré publishing house tied to the German Communist Party, rejected the manuscript because of its ‘heretical’ orientation, too far from the official line set in Moscow.[14]

In 1934, Anders gave a lecture on Kafka at the Institute of German Studies in Paris, attended by Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin, among the few people in the audience for whom the Prague writer was not an unknown. Re-read in the light of current events, The Castle became for Anders a kind of mirror in which the condition of the German exiles was reflected: their status of human beings was not enough to demonstrate their existence if they were unable to show a passport. Their situation thus presented itself as a new variant of the Kafkaesque parable, in which the quest of the surveyor K. appeared neatly reversed: he could not get into the Castle, whereas they had already been expelled from it. They were ‘nothing’. Without papers, as deprived of German citizenship, they had lost their right to exist, and their existence was indeed not recognised by police headquarters (‘a realcastle” where only officials like Klamm could be found’).[15]

In 1936, following his separation from Hannah Arendt, Anders left for the United States, where a long period of intellectual and political isolation awaited him. As an exiled intellectual, a ‘non-Jewish Jew’ and a non-party Marxist, Anders could not help but exercise his ‘spirit of flight’ in the face of both Jewish tradition and official Communism. After joining his parents in North Carolina, where his father had taken up a teaching position in psychology at Duke University, and working for a time as a private tutor in the home of the composer Irving Berlin, Anders went through a long period of precariousness and low intellectual output. Apart from a few rare contributions to Aufbau, the journal of German-Jewish émigrés in New York, his time was mainly taken up by small, poorly paid jobs, first in New York then in Los Angeles, where he lived for a while in Herbert Marcuse’s house. In California he worked as a dishwasher in restaurants and an unskilled worker in a large factory, an experience from which he was to draw material for his philosophical reflection on modern technology.

Like many other immigrants, Anders was recruited by the Office of War Information to translate propaganda pamphlets that were distributed in Allied-occupied areas with the purpose of ‘re-educating’ the Germans. Anders refused to translate a text full of racist prejudices against the Japanese and was dismissed as ‘weak-minded’. He wrote that he had seldom aroused as much astonishment as that shown by his editor when he explained that he had not ‘come to America, fleeing from Nazism, to produce fascist pamphlets aimed at Germany’.[16] In conflict with Adorno since 1929, Anders was ‘tolerated’ by the Institute for Social Research, but never accepted as a member. His situation began to improve in 1948, when he was asked to teach philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York. Two years later, after a period of teaching whose ‘intellectual level’, he confessed, was no better than his English, he left America in the grip of the Cold War and returned to Europe. He chose now to settle in Vienna, the city of his second wife, in a marginal position that nevertheless allowed him to preserve his independence and assert his distance in the confrontation between the anti-Communist Germany of Konrad Adenauer and the Stalinism of Walter Ulbricht.

‘Promethean shame’

On 11 March 1942, Günther Anders wrote in his diary some impressions triggered by a visit to a technical exhibition in Los Angeles. He had suddenly been seized by an unfamiliar feeling, a pudendum still hard to define, he called ‘prometheische Scham’ (Promethean shame), seeking to express man’s humiliation in the face of the perfection and power of his own technical creations.[17] This was not unrelated to the climate generated by the War, which would rapidly acquire much clearer and more terrifying features in the form of the Nazi extermination camps and the atom bomb. This theme of ‘Promethean shame’ became the centre of all Anders’s subsequent thinking and was reflected in his work on the ‘obsolescence of man’ (Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen), which brought together in two volumes, published in 1956 and 1980 respectively, a collection of texts written over a period of forty years.

This sense of shame stemmed from an awareness of the growing gap between imagination and production. After two centuries of being accompanied first by the utopian dreams of the Enlightenment philosophers and then by the achievements of the first Industrial Revolution, technology had abandoned the realm of the thinkable and was beginning to stand against humanity as a hostile force. Representation (Vorstellung) and production (Herstellung) had consummated their divorce and men were no longer able to conceive what they had been able to achieve by technology.[18] In a formula typical of his style of thinking, Anders defined the men of the twentieth century as ‘inverted utopians’ (invertierte Utopisten). In contrast to the ‘classical’ utopians who prefigured in their imagination  a reality that did not yet exist or was purely fantastical (Jules Verne’s journeys to the moon or the centre of the earth), the ‘inverted utopians’ of the twentieth century were no longer able to foresee the reality that they were perfectly capable of producing.[19] This awareness, still vague and confused in 1942, became precise under the impact of Auschwitz and Hiroshima. A Zyklon B capsule had the appearance of a simple tin can, and its manufacture involved nothing extraordinary in technical terms, but the gas chambers and the scientific organisation of death defied even the most fertile imagination at the start of the Second World War. The aerial images of the total destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a shock even for the scientists at Los Alamos who had conceived and manufactured the atom bomb.

This transformation was marked by three industrial revolutions, defined by Anders more in philosophical and anthropological than in historical terms.[20] The first industrial revolution gave rise to machines as means of production; the second was the extension of commodity production to all spheres of society (all needs were now satisfied by commodities) and began the colonisation of humanity by technology; finally, the third industrial revolution had rendered man obsolete and prepared his complete replacement by technology. Of course, the common thread running through all these industrial revolutions was capitalism, which expressed and displayed the totalitarian vocation of technology. In this way, the conquering technology became the ‘subject of history’ and menaced to destroy the whole of humanity. The transformation of technology into the subject of history inevitably implied a tragic corollary: the end of history (Endzeit), for there can be no history when people are no longer the actors.[21] For Anders, the twentieth century stood therefore under the sign of catastrophe. In this philosophy devoid of any teleological aspect, ‘Promethean shame’ in the face of this spectacle of destruction corresponds to the terrified and desperate gaze of Walter Benjamin’s angel of history.[22]

Although presented in fragmentary texts, often inspired by contingent circumstances – Anders characterised his thought as an ‘occasional philosophy’ (Gelegenheitsphilosophie)[23] – these reflections have an undeniable coherence expressed in multiple variants. In the hundreds of pages of these two volumes, ‘Promethean shame’ takes on different contents: sometimes it reflects awareness of the incomplete and limited character of human nature in front of the perfection of its technical products, in a world where the ontological superiority of commodities over humans is no longer in doubt; sometimes it defines the powerlessness of humans facing the destructive capacities of their demonic creations. Inspired by Kafka, Beckett, and Strindberg (to whom Benjamin would be added), Anders saw modern technology as the purely negative consummation of the ancient Faustian dream. ‘Promethean shame’ appears as a kind of dialectical reversal of the unshakeable faith in progress that dominated the nineteenth century.[24] Modern technology has not freed Prometheus from his chains, it has made his torture still harsher and more unbearable, to the point of making all efforts at liberation futile. Technology has given men the illusion of being all-powerful gods, ‘the equals of God himself’, but they have not realised that their power is exclusively negative and destructive. The power they have conquered has not been that of creating ex nihilo; technology has made them masters of the world only in the sense that it has conferred on them the capacity for a ‘totalreductio ad nihil’.[25]

This philosophy clearly betrays the influence of Heidegger, for whom modern man is no longer a creating subject but a mere appendage or executant of technology.[26] Anders always denied this filiation, stigmatising Heideggerian philosophy as pre-modern thought, not only anti-Marxist but above all ‘pre-capitalist’. In the above-mentioned interview with Mathias Greffrath, Anders maintained that ‘[Heidegger’s] world of tools [Zeugwelt] is that of a village craftsman, anatelier-world [Werkstattwelt]. Scheler rightly called his philosophy a “cobbler’s ontology”. Factories have not yet appeared inSein und Zeit.’[27]

Heideggerian ontology places being in relation to time but not space, taking for granted a bond between men and the earth based on an ‘anthropology of roots’ which had been its most damaging political consequence, leading the German philosopher to espouse the nationalist myth of Blut und Boden.[28] In an essay published in 1948 in the United States, Anders denounced the ‘pseudo-concreteness’ and ‘pseudo-radicalism’ of Heidegger,[29] characterising it as ‘a philosophy of life hostile to life’[30] a totally solipsist conception of freedom, and a vision of the historical that displayed an extreme form of ‘voluntary provincialism’,[31] an ontology without social density, and a moral vacuity that had prepared the ground for his adhesion to National Socialism.[32] But in his critical reading of Sein and Zeit, Anders discussed the question of technology only in passing. Besides the influence of Heidegger, his own reflections were stimulated by an intense and fruitful dialogue with Herbert Marcuse, who had published on this subject in 1941 a pioneering essay in which he presented Nazism as ‘a striking example of the way in which a highly rationalised and completely mechanised economic system… could function in the service of totalitarian domination and the maintenance of misery’. The Third Reich, Marcuse concluded, was a ‘technocracy’, whose terroristic character would be all the more accentuated in the conditions of a war economy but was directly consubstantial with technology.[33] Taking up and radicalising this thesis, Anders wrote in the following year that the tendency to totalitarianism ‘belongs to the essence of the machine and derives originally from the world of technology’.[34]

Anders was always very discreet regarding his sources, but the affinity of his reflections with those of Marcuse is evident throughout. And the thought of both men was situated substantially within a Heideggerian philosophical horizon.[35] Heidegger’s ontology, which sees ‘being-towards-death’ (Sein zum Tode) as the fundamental modality of history, is very reminiscent of Anders’s philosophy of desperation, according to which the contemporary human condition lies in a constant and irreversible threat of extermination. ‘Authentic being-towards-death, which means the finitude of temporality is the hidden foundation of the historicity of existence’ (Das eigentliche Sein zum Tode, das heißt die Endlichkeit der Zeitlichkeit, ist der verborgene Grund der Geschichtlichkeit des Daseins).[36] Basically, Anders could have subscribed to this famous Heidegger’s formula, even if he enriched it with a moral and political content that was foreign if not antithetical to Heidegger’s philosophy.

The critique of technology developed by Anders took shape as a humanist (and Marxist) Aufhebung of Heidegger’s thought, not as its pure and simple negation. The Heideggerian vision of technology as the true ontological condition of men in the modern world[37] finds an undeniable correspondence in the work of Anders. In Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen, technology is perceived systematically and exclusively as a source of alienation, never appearing – like in Fourier, Marx, or Benjamin – as a possible ‘key to happiness’ for humanity.[38] Heidegger’s observation according to which ‘everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology[39] could readily have been written by his former pupil. The teaching of the author of Sein und Zeit left an unmistakable trace on Anders’s intellectual formation (as on other German-Jewish philosophers of his generation), but did not become a conceptual cage, nor impede Anders from orienting his philosophical reflections on other paths. Two decisive sources of his thought, the Jewish legacy (rejection of the German mysticism of blood and soil) and the encounter with Marxism (a re-reading of the concept of alienation in relation to the critique of capitalism), helped him to ‘emancipate’ from this Heideggerian matrix, without however abandoning it.

The obsolescence of man

What place did Auschwitz occupy in the context of this dark philosophy of technology which, as Pier Paolo Portinaro emphasised, carries a negative charge on the ontological level (the obsolescence of being), on theanthropological level (the primacy of technology over people) and finally on theeschatological level (the end of history)?[40] If Auschwitz marked a historical turning point, its specificity lay more in its paradigmatic character than in its absolutesingularity. Rather than a historicalunicum, the genocide of the Jews was for Anders a kind of ‘model’, the first attempt at the systematic extermination of a people by means of modern technology, followed by the menace of a systematic destruction of humanity as a whole.[41] Beyond the particular features of the German past, Nazism expressed a tendency intrinsic to modern society, the world war providing a favourable context for displaying the full annihilating potentiality of technology. In the extermination camps, the new subject of history celebrated its triumph: the Nazi death factories involved the dehumanisation both of their victims, degraded to raw material, and of executioners transformed into cogs in an administrative and industrial apparatus. The word ‘killing’ was inadequate for this process, as the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Treblinka functioned simply as death-producing machines.[42]

‘What was true of the everyday business of war’, Anders wrote,

was of course all the more true of those installations which… stood out like the extreme lines of the front of terror; it was in the extermination camps [Vernichtungslager] that the machinery of death [Tötungsmachinerien] worked with such absolute precision that no anti-economic residues of life were left. The respectable proposition ‘all men are mortal’ had definitively lost its significance and become ridiculous. If it had been inscribed above the entrance gates to the extermination devices – instead of the signs indicating ‘showers’ used to ensure more efficient operation – it would have provoked mocking laughter in which the voices of the candidates for death would have been hard to distinguish from those escorting them. The old motto had passed on its truth to a new one that could be formulated more or less as follows: ‘All men are eliminable’ [Alle Menschen sind tötbar].[43]

With Hiroshima, a new threshold was crossed in this process of destruction, its motto now being: ‘The mankind as a whole is eliminable’ [Die Menschheit als ganze ist tötbar].[44] ‘Modern capitalist society thus reached the stage of ‘post-civilised cannibalism’.[45]

Anders continually emphasised this relationship of structural affinity between the gas chambers and the atom bomb, due to a common matrix. In both cases, extermination has gone beyond the contingencies of war; it is no longer a question of suppressing an enemy but of eliminating, by technical means, a mass of individuals for whom any possibility of resistance is excluded a priori. The massacres by which history has been punctuated since ancient times now seem to have a ‘human’ character alongside the cold and technical elimination, without hate and without struggle, practised in Auschwitz and Hiroshima.

In this ‘eradication’ [Vertilgung], Anders wrote in his 1958 journal of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,

war has ceased to be a strategic act, transformed into a purely technical process that removes its character of war. Someone who eliminates flies with insecticide, without encountering or experiencing any kind or resistance, does not make war; they are merely carrying out a technical operation. In the same way, when he herded the Lager prisoners into the gas chambers, Hitler was not waging a war against Jews, Gypsies or other ‘sub-humans’, but simply annihilating them. And this principle has now found a continuation [in Hiroshima and Nagasaki]. There too, no resistance could be expected. Nagasaki and the liquidation apparatuses [Liquidationsanstalten] are crimes that belong to the same category.[46]

The reification of death, implicit in industrialised extermination, could also dispense with an essential attribute of all massacres in history: hatred. The hatred that inspires the killer is no longer needed in an elimination that is planned and carried out like a job of work, like a technical task, in which the victims are stripped of their humanity and reduced to the state of ‘raw material’ (in the Nazi camps) or just a geographically located target (in Hiroshima and Nagasaki). In modern mass exterminations, the victims no longer have a face. ‘It is not only theconcept of “enemy” that is obsolete, but everything that has to do psychologically with “hostility”.’[47]

Of course, it would not be difficult, from a historical point of view, to point out the one-sided aspects of such an approach. We could remember that hatred of the Jews was an essential component of the ‘final solution’ and that, without being a sufficient explanation, it was nevertheless a necessary premise.

The atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on the other hand, had an essentially political purpose – to bring American military power to bear on the new world balance – a purpose for which hundreds of thousands of Japanese paid with their lives. Historical research in recent years – from the debate around Daniel Goldhagen’s thesis to the hundreds of images in a controversial German exhibition on the crimes of the Wehrmacht[48] – has shown irrefutably that the Holocaust was also, in many respects, an eruption of hate and violence sustained by passion and fanaticism. We could also recall that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not the expression of a genocidal intention, but rather continued, as many analyses have stressed, a geopolitical project defined by the balance of forces between the great powers at the end of the Second World War.[49] And finally, we might add that, as distinct from the extermination camps that put Nazi ideology into practice, the atom bomb was a crime perpetrated against the principles of its creators, scientists – in some cases European exiles – motivated by fear that Nazi Germany could acquire nuclear weapons and determined to counter this menace. Leo Szilard, for instance, had proposed renouncing the manufacture of the atom bomb once it became clear that Germany was not able to produce it before the end of the War, and was opposed to launching it against Japanese cities.[50]

Despite all these considerations, Anders’s interpretation emphasizes certain features shared by the ‘final solution’ and nuclear extermination. If it is obvious that the genocide of the Jews could not have taken place without anti-Semitism, this alone was not enough to eliminate six million people across the whole of Europe. Indispensable to putting the Holocaust into effect was a technical-managerial machinery made up of hundreds of thousands of operators, who often, as Anders stressed, carried out only banal and bureaucratic tasks. The functioning of the exterminatory mechanism was for them simply a ‘job’ that could be done without ever inquiring what its purpose was, freeing them a priori from any questioning of a moral order. The reduction of crime to routine, which Adolf Eichmann made his expertise, needed neither hatred nor passion for its committal, only the rigour and rationality of a job ‘well done’. It took not fanaticism, rather the zeal of bureaucrats shaped by the Weberian ‘ethic of responsibility’. Like the extermination camps, the atom bomb required the ‘moral neutrality’ of its agents. Little mattered, in this case, the difference in mentality, culture or political orientation that separated the pilots of Hiroshima from the functionaries of the German railways who ensured the arrival of convoys to Auschwitz, Treblinka and Sobibor. All of them did their allotted ‘job’. All of them felt ethically and politically not involved in the consequences of their actions.

In his writings, Anders depicted Auschwitz and Hiroshima as ‘two classic examples’ of this reification of death achieved by technology that took the form of ‘a job well done’:

These exterminations, which presented themselves as deeds rather than misdeeds, had been assigned to their executors as jobs of work. The consequence that follows from this mystification – I do not mean here the ultimate consequence, the rubble and ashes, but the penultimate one: the effect on the executors – is well-known. Since they had been taught, as creatures of the industrial age, that work ‘non olet’, that itcannot stink, that it is an activity whose outcome is in principle of no concern to us or to our conscience, they carried out the mass murders entrusted to them [Massenmord-Aufträge] under the label of ‘work’ without opposition, just as if it had been any other work. Without opposition, because they acted in good conscience. In good conscience, because they had no conscience. Without conscience, because the terms of their contract had absolved their conscience. ‘Off limits to conscience.’[51]

To grasp the thread of continuity that links Auschwitz to Hiroshima meant, for Anders, recognising that the impulses unleashed in the extermination camps had not died with the defeat of Nazism but could be reproduced in new forms. The Jewish genocide was the specific form that modern barbarism had taken in the context of Hitler’s Germany, with its victims earmarked by centuries of anti-Semitism and eliminated in the name of racial biology, but the tendency to destroy a now ‘obsolete’ humanity remained at the heart of technological civilisation. The atom bomb proved that industrial mass murder was not a Nazi speciality and that its menace had not disappeared with the liberation of Auschwitz in January 1945. Anders saw the fact that the atom bomb had been dropped on Japan by the victors over Nazi Germany as removing any historical legitimacy from the Nuremberg trial. On 8 August 1945, the Allied agreement establishing the International Military Tribunal charged with judging Nazi ‘crimes against humanity’ had coincided exactly with the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (6th and 9th August respectively). The solemn condemnation of Nazi crimes before the whole world, Anders wrote, had been formulated ‘in the context of other crimes against humanity’.[52]

Drawing a universal lesson from the breakdown of civilisation that had been consummated at Auschwitz meant, in the first place, recognising the persistence of its causes within industrial-capitalist modernity itself. Anders shared this view with Herbert Marcuse. In his introduction to Eros and Civilization, published in 1955, a year before Anders’sDie Antiquiertheit des Menschen, the Berlin philosopher had written:

Throughout the world of industrial civilization, the domination of man by man is growing in scope and efficiency. Nor does this trend appear as an incidental, transitory regression on the road to progress. Concentration camps, mass exterminations, world wars and atom bombs are no ‘relapse into barbarism’, but the unrepressed implementation of the achievements of modern science, technology, and domination. And the most effective subjugation and destruction of man by man takes place at the height of civilisation, when the material and intellectual attainments of mankind seem to allow the creation of a truly free world.[53]

Marcuse was undoubtedly the Frankfurt School philosopher who had the greatest affinity with Anders, both having undergone their intellectual formation in Germany in the shadow of Heidegger. For both, it was no longer possible to limit oneself to criticising the use of modern technology under capitalism. The experience of the twentieth century, in particular the violence of the two world wars, had brought technology as such into question. For Marcuse, a finality of domination was intrinsically bound up with the rationality of modern societies: ‘Today, domination perpetuates and extends itself not only through technology butas technology, and the latter provides the great legitimisation of the expanding political power, which absorbs all spheres of culture.’[54] Like Anders, Marcuse held that ‘the danger that threatens us is not due to a misuse of technology, it is inherent in the very essence of technology.’[55]

Anders and Marcuse were clearly lucid in their denunciation and critique of a myth, that of the ‘neutrality’ of science and of science and technology. Just as German medicine and biology had yielded to Nazi ideology and thus contributed to the work of extermination, physics had shown, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that it could become a tool for the destruction of humanity. Taken to its extreme, however, such a conception could come close to the Heideggerian thesis that Nazism was merely the product of ‘the encounter between global technology and modern humanity.[56] If technology has replaced man as the subject of history, then it would be pointless to seek human responsibility for the wars, crimes, and violence of the twentieth century. Auschwitz and Hiroshima would be simply a consequence of technology, not of human choices and actions. Humanity would be relegated to an ontologically subaltern role in which notions of responsibility and guilt would have lost their meaning. Yet, despite being made possible by technical development, Auschwitz and Hiroshima were the products of human choices, in a historical context, in anthropological and cultural conditions, and in a well-defined balance of social and political forces. As in his correspondence with Claude Eatherly, which we shall go on to consider, Anders succeeded in avoiding this extreme drift, which nevertheless remained an outcome potentially inscribed in his philosophy of technology. Similar considerations could be made about Marcuse who was obliged to conclude, in two severe and bitter letters of this time, that any dialogue with Heidegger had become impossible.[57] Like Marcuse, Anders understood that there was no longer a ‘dimension of logos’ and avoided any new contact with his former mentor. Neither Marcuse nor Anders, however, questioned the aporias that the Heideggerian legacy had left in their own thinking.

Anders’s distinctive philosophy was the result of a synthesis of two formative elements: a critique of technical and industrial modernity with a romantic savour, inspired by Heidegger but remodelled by a strong ethical-political sensibility, and a Marxist critique of capitalism conceived as a system of domination and alienation. Modern civilisation did not limit itself, as in the past, to excluding the Jews; it made them the designated victims of its technology of death. This sombre reflection on modernity as a catastrophe without redemption reveals the traces left on Anders’s thought by a certain Jewish tradition and gives his theses a ‘prophetic’ character. As Gershom Scholem wrote, ‘the authors of the Apocalypse always had a pessimistic view of the world. History, in their eyes, deserved only to perish’.[58] For Anders, however, as distinct from prophets of the Apocalypse, Auschwitz and Hiroshima did not seem to announce any salvation, rather the end of messianic hope. His own apocalypse had lost any eschatological dimension. All that remained was to live ‘without hope’.[59]

Eichmann and the Hiroshima pilot

Towards the end of the 1950s, Anders began a fertile correspondence with Claude Eatherly, one of the pilots who had participated in the operation leading to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Anders was now living in Vienna and becoming known for his role in the movement against nuclear weapons, when he read in an American magazine about Eatherly’s mental illness and suicide attempt. What struck him most – because it revealed the ‘moral fault’ of the United States in the face of a crime for which it bore sole historical responsibility – was the fact that no one thought to establish any connection between the pilot’s psychological state and the experience he had undergone. Experts put forward various hypotheses but never mentioned Hiroshima. Anders decided then to write to Eatherly, and began a correspondence with him whose therapeutic effects were subsequently verified. The sense of moral guilt felt by the pilot after becoming aware of the consequences of his ‘fault’ – in other words the ‘symbolic function’ to which he had been ‘condemned’ without having been conscious of it[60] – indicated to Anders that Eatherly had ‘remained’ or again ‘become’ a human being. He too was, Anders wrote, ‘a victim of Hiroshima’.[61] The case of this young American perfectly illustrated the paradox of technological massacres, and their perpetrators could themselves be ‘innocent culprits’. This was acknowledged by the ‘girls of Hiroshima’, survivors of the nuclear devastation now suffering from radiation, who, after having heard of Eatherly’s situation, wrote him a moving letter that contained the following sentence: ‘We have come to feel a sense of friendship and believe that you are a victim of war like ourselves.’[62]

In 1961, when the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem focused the attention of international public opinion, Anders presented the Hiroshima pilot as the ‘living antithesis’ of the SS lieutenant-colonel responsible for the ‘final solution’. During the trial, Eichmann had defended himself by claiming that he had acted as a mere cog in the Nazi machine of extermination, limiting himself to following orders that could not be questioned. He had not shown the least sign of remorse either during the War, or in Argentina, before his capture by the Israeli secret service. During the trial, he limited himself to expressing his regrets, without admitting any guilt. Eatherly, on the contrary, had been unaware of the power of the weapon that would be released during his flight, and the consequences that he would produce. He felt oppressed by an overwhelming sense of guilt despite no one having accused him, and he declared himself devastated by the terrible massacre of which he had been an involuntary agent. Certainly, he had acted as a mere cog in a machine of death whose magnitude he did not suspect, but that did not ease his conscience or become a pretext for absolution. He had understood that it was necessary to refuse to ‘follow orders’, and that it was dangerous to act as a disciplined and obedient ‘pawn’. In short, if Eichmann embodied the ‘banality of evil’, in Arendt’s celebrated phrase, Eatherly personified the ‘innocence of evil’ (Unschuld des Bösen’).[63]

The correspondence between the militant philosopher and the pilot, in which, as the letters proceeded, feelings of understanding, respect and even friendship sprang up between two men whose experience and culture were diametrically opposed, not only had a likely therapeutic and liberating effect on Eatherly, but also a strong impact on Anders’s thought. ‘You and Eichmann,’ he wrote, ‘are two emblematic figures of our time. If there were no men like you as opposed to Eichmann, we would have every reason to despair.’[64] Twenty years later, he remembered with gratitude how Eatherly had made him understand that ‘Eichmann cannot be the only embodiment of our time’.[65]

This passage seems to suggest that Anders’s ‘desperation principle’ was not so radically incompatible with Ernest Bloch’s ‘principle of hope’. Despite accusing Bloch of nursing an ingenuous and dangerous optimism, Anders did not intend to deny any possibility of human and social emancipation, only to point out the extent to which the margin for liberating action had been narrowed and, above all, the basis on which liberating action must now be conceived. In other words, the classical alternative ‘socialism or barbarism’ was not posed to a still virgin humanity, but rather questioned a civilisation that had already entered an era of barbarism and begun to experience the concrete possibility of its own self-destruction. This barbarism had to be fought – as Anders did throughout his life – in the knowledge that hope was not a wide-open door to a bright future but a weak ray of light that filtered through the cracks of an edifice called progress, once imposing and glorious, but now crumbling under the weight of its own contradictions. This faint glimmer of hope began with the understanding that Auschwitz and Hiroshima had already been, and that, even if all nuclear weapons were destroyed, the possibility of building new ones could not be ruled out. To Bloch’s ontology, based on the utopian category of the ‘not-yet’, Anders opposed the lucid observation that an ‘anticipating’ consciousness could not avoid the possibility of a ‘no more’.[66] Any utopian prefiguration of a different reality could not fail to take into account our condition as ‘inverted utopians’ whose boldest projections remained beneath an absolutely unimaginable horror, potentially already inscribed in the present.

Even as baleful oracle of an apocalypse without redemption, Anders did not want to abandon the Marxist tradition but worked for its critical renovation. At a time when there seemed to be no boundary between ontology and ethics, the priority task of revolution was necessarily ‘conservative’. To ‘change the world’, as Marx put it in his eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, it had first to be preserved. Therefore Anders, a revolutionary intellectual born and bred in the tradition of the German left, did not hesitate to define himself as an ‘ontological conservative’.[67] His message is closely reminiscent of Benjamin’s theses: there is only a thread of hope left, but this thread has not yet been cut. It can be grasped, provided that a ‘desperate’ philosophical attitude is adopted, aware that humanity is on the brink of a precipice, in a twilight of civilisation, on the eve of a true Endzeit, for all that its noisy, arrogant and opulent outward aspect seems to indicate the contrary.

After Auschwitz and Hiroshima, concrete signs of the fact that all humanity is now exposed to the danger of its destruction, the only ethically and philosophically permissible posture is to consider the people of the atomic age as ‘survivors’. In essence, this view merely generalised, in a universal spirit, the subjective experience of the Jew Günther Anders. On a visit to Auschwitz in July 1966, the philosophy had the clear sensation of being a ‘survivor’. Looking at the possessions of the victims, the only remaining traces of the millions of Jews deported to the extermination camps, he had the feeling that he had survived only by chance, being himself targeted as a victim. Mute in front of these mute objects – ‘their suitcases, mountains of suitcases; their glasses, mountains of glasses; their hair, mountains of hair: their shoes, mountains of shoes’[68] – he felt overcome by the shame, natural and spontaneous, of a Jewish survivor of the genocide. The shame of knowing that his own suitcase, his own glasses, his own hair and his own shoes did not form part of the pile despite having been destined for this. The privilege of survival was a source not of pride but of shame. A shame that in many ways was similar to that experienced by Primo Levi, who maintained that the survivors were neither heroes nor the best among those deported; the same shame that surfaced in confronting the dignified look of two Japanese boys suffering from radiation whom Anders had visited in a Nagasaki hospital. The shame of humanity in the face of a century of barbarism was one of the roots of the thought of this philosopher without homeland and militant without party, who made desperation into a spark of revolt.


At the end of his life, Anders gave a new dimension to his philosophy of despair. The threat to humanity did not mean exclusively a potential nuclear extermination; it also meant the destruction of nature and ecological catastrophes: exploited by fossil capitalism and enchained by a voracious technological octopus, earth is condemned to die with its inhabitants. Without abandoning his commitment against nuclear weapons, Anders included ecology into his political philosophy. Whereas his Marxism was a dialectical Aufhebung of Heidegger’s existentialism, his politics meant a radical break with Heidegger’s ‘politics of being’.Heimatlos and ‘non-Jewish Jew’, he thought that in a global age any liberation project had to be post-national. Like Adorno and Horkheimer, he viewed the relationship between productive forces and relations of property as a negative dialectic that reinforced domination and oppression, but his attachment to apocalyptic messianism prevented him from embracing the Frankfurt School’s resignation to a reified world. With Benjamin and Marcuse, he shared the idea of revolution as a change of civilisation, as the restoration of a fruitful and harmonic relationship between nature and human beings, exactly the opposite of an acceleration of history along the lines of industrialism and productivism. Till the end, Anders remained a rebel, a left-wing Cassandra who considered despair as a political weapon against the demons of oppression and death. His critical thought can fuel the struggles of our own century.


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Anders, Günther 1982d, ‘Das monstruöseste Datum’, in Die atomare Drohung, Munich: C. H. Beck.

Anders, Günther 1982e, ‘Off limits für das Gewissen. Briefwechsel mit dem Hiroshima-Piloten Eatherley’ in Hiroshima ist überall, Munich: C. H. Beck.

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Anders, Günther 1986 [1980], Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen. II. Über die Zerstörung des Lebens im Zeitalter der dritten industriellen Revolution, Munich: C. H. Beck.

Anders, Günther. 1992, Die molussische Katakombe, Munich: C. H. Beck.

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Heidegger, Martin 2014, Introduction to Metaphysics [1935], trans. G. Fried and R. Polt, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Hildebrandt, H. 1990, Weltzustand Technik. Ein Vergleich der Technikphilosophien von Günther Anders und Martin Heidegger, Berlin: Metropol.

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Katz, B. 1987, ‘The Criticism of Arms. The Frankfurt School Goes to War’, Journal of Modern History, 59: 439-78.

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[1]. Anders 1984a, pp. 313–4.

[2]. Cf. Anders 1984b.

[3]. Anders 1984c, p. 237.

[4]. Anders 1984c, p. 242. On Anders’s relationship to Jewishness, see also Le Rider 1992, pp. 87–99.

[5]. Cited in Young-Bruehl 1982, p. 60.

[6]. Cf. the correspondence between Adorno and Anders, in Adorno 2003, pp. 276–84.

[7]. Stern 1934, pp. 65–80, and Stern 1936, pp. 22–54.

[8]. Mannheim 1969. Anders wrote a review of Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia (1929) for theBerliner Börsen-Curier.

[9]. Anders 1984d, p. 96.

[10]. Anders 1984d, p. 99.

[11]. Anders 1984d, p. 112.

[12]. Cf. Anders 1982a, p. 334.

[13]. Anders 1992.

[14]. Cf. Liessmann 1993, p. 125.

[15]. Anders 1984b, p. xxxiii.

[16]. Anders 1984a, p. 310. On the mobilisation of German exiles by the Office of War Information, cf. Katz 1987.

[17]. Anders 1985a, p. 23.

[18]. Anders 1985a, p. 16, and Anders 1986, p. 67.

[19]. Anders 1981, p. 96.

[20]. Cf. Portinaro 2003, p. 64.

[21]. Anders 1986, pp. 273, 279–80. On the concept of Endzeit, see G. Anders 1982b, p. 393.

[22]. Benjamin 2003, p. 392

[23]. Anders 1985a, p. 239; Anders 1986, p. 404.

[24]. Cf. Schubert 1992, p. 80.

[25]. Anders 1985a, p. 239; Anders 1986, p. 404.

[26]. Heidegger 1954, p. 20; Heidegger 1993, p. 324.

[27]. Anders 1984a, p. 291.

[28]. Anders 1984a, p. 292.

[29]. Stern 1948, p. 355.

[30]. Stern 1948, p. 370.

[31]. Stern 1948, p. 259.

[32]. Stern 1948, p. 356. Anders’s writings on Heidegger are now collected in Anders 2001. On the relationship between Anders and Heidegger, cf. Hildebrandt 1990.

[33]. Marcuse 1998, pp. 41–2. Useful introductions to this subject are Kellner 1998a and Müller 2002.

[34]. Anders 1986, p. 439.

[35]. The filiation from Heidegger to Marcuse has been analysed in highly critical terms by Wolin 2001. Chapter 6 of this book deals with Marcuse; Anders is strangely ignored. The relationship of Anders to Heidegger is focused on more closely by Sarfanski 1994. Portinaro pertinently observed that ‘the shadow that looms, enigmatic and insurmountable, over the whole of Anders’s philosophical production… is the shadow of Heidegger (Portinaro 2003, p. 50).

[36]. Heidegger 1953a, p. 386.

[37]. Cf. Wolin 1990, p. 165.

[38]. Benjamin 1999, p. 321.

[39]. Heidegger 1954, p. 13; Heidegger 1993, p. 311.

[40]. Cf. Portinaro 2003, pp. 41–5. Also Brumlik 1988, p. 116.

[41]. Anders 1986, pp. 98–99.

[42]. Anders 1986, p. 33.

[43]. Anders 1985a, pp. 242–3.

[44]. Anders 1985a, p. 243.

[45]. Anders 1986, pp. 25–6.

[46]. Anders 1982c, p. 113.

[47]. Ibid.

[48]. Goldhagen 1996. On the debate aroused by this controversial book, cf. Schoeps 1995 and Institut für Sozialforschung 2002.

[49]. Cf. Alperovitz 1965.

[50]. Cf. Greco 1995, p. 210.

[51]. Anders 1986, p. 168.

[52]. Anders 1982d, p. 168.

[53]. Marcuse 1962, p. 4.

[54]. Marcuse 1964, p. 130.

[55]. Anders 1986, p. 126.

[56]. Heidegger 1953b, p. 152; Heidegger 2014, p. 222.

[57]. Kellner 1998b, pp. 261–8.

[58]. Scholem 1963, p. 25.

[59]. Anders 1984c, p. 244. Cf. among others Adunka 1992, p. 75.

[60]. Anders 1982e, p. 208.

[61]. Anders 1982e, p. 213.

[62]. Anders 1982e, p. 232 (letter from the ‘Girls of Hiroshima’ to Eatherley of 24 July 1959).

[63]. Anders 1985b, p. 205.

[64]. Anders 1982e, p. 346. See also on this subject Anders 1964, his essay on the occasion of the Eichmann trial.

[65]. Anders 1982f, p. xxvi.

[66]. Cf. Bloch 1985, vol. 1, p. 258, and Anders 1986, p. 278. On the Bloch/Anders relationship, cf. Liessmann 1993, pp. 91–4, and Schmidt 1993, pp. 49–56.

[67]. Anders 1984a, p. 319.

[68]. Anders 1985c, pp. 7–8.

Revisiting the ‘Jewish Question’ and Its Contemporary Discontents

Igor Shoikhedbrod

As this article is being written, the world is confronting a global pandemic that continues to wreak havoc daily. While unprecedented in several respects, the pandemic mirrors earlier crises under financialised capitalism, at least in its devastating impact upon the global working poor and the unemployed, racialised minorities, migrant workers, and other marginalised groups. The pandemic has also been accompanied by a spate of anti-Jewish and anti-Asian violence globally. To be sure, racist-based violence and hate crimes had a long and sordid history before the pandemic. In 2019, a German neo-fascist killed two people outside a Halle synagogue in a deliberate attempt to carry out a murderous rampage against Jews. A year earlier, another neo-fascist was responsible for killing 11 Jewish worshippers and injuring six others at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. In addition to these horrific acts of antisemitic violence, there has been a general spike in hate crimes against Jews across Europe and North America, which has given renewed force to contemporary discussions about antisemitism and the ‘Jewish Question’.[1] In the Marxist tradition, the debate about the Jewish Question originates in the nineteenth century, prompted as it was by Marx’s well-known critique of Bruno Bauer’s book, Die Judenfrage (The Jewish Question). The current iteration of this debate is complicated by a host of multi-layered and conflicting realities. These realities include the enduring legacies of the Holocaust, the Nakba, the consolidation of the Israeli state, the struggle of Palestinians for self-determination amidst a brutal occupation, as well as a global political context in which xenophobic nationalisms and neo-fascisms have resurfaced with a vengeance.


This piece is being made available as a preprint edition of the double-volume Marxism and the Critique of Antisemitism special issue of Historical Materialism. Further additions will still be made before then. The final published version of this text will be made available on the Brill website in the coming months. We ask that citations refer to the Brill edition.All Illustrations are by Natalia Podpora.


Much as the bold work of Abram Leon may have illuminated the plight of European Jews at an earlier historical juncture, the diverse predicament of Jews around the world has changed considerably since the time that Leon wrote his well-known work.[2] Looking back as one looks forward, Leon’s analysis is understandably dated, and his central thesis about the Jews as a ‘people-class’ was arguably misplaced.[3] However, the question that agitated the precocious 26 year old, who was murdered by the Nazis in 1944, is still with us today. That question is the enduring ‘Jewish Question’. The apparent inadequacies of traditional Marxist approaches to antisemitism and the Jewish Question, Leon’s included, have led some scholars to conclude that the Marxist tradition is hopelessly unequipped to grapple with antisemitism and its political manifestations. In an updated edition to his influential study on Marxism and the Jewish Question, Enzo Traverso reaches the following judgement regarding classical Marxism and its position on the Jewish Question:

The history of the Marxist debate on the Jewish Question is the history of a misunderstanding. Classical Marxism was incapable of comprehending the nature of antisemitism, or of recognizing the Jewish aspiration to a distinct separate identity. Actually, it shared this misconception with all intellectual and political currents that belonged to the tradition of Enlightenment, from democratic liberalism to Zionism.[4]

As for the main source of classical Marxism’s misunderstanding of the Jewish Question and its resultant discontents, Traverso submits:

Finally, the Marxist debate on the Jewish Question shows the tragic illusions of a teleological vision of history. Behind the Marxist conception of assimilation and antisemitism, there was an idea of progress in which history was envisaged as a linear development, an inevitable improvement of humanity, the evolution of society following natural laws and the development of the productive forces under capitalism growing inevitably closer to the advent of the socialist order.[5]

To be sure, one can find passages in Marx and Engels, often detached from context, that support Traverso’s conclusions. The same is true for misappropriations of these passages by some subsequent Marxists. Marx and Engels were indeed children of the Enlightenment – critical as they may have been of its shortcomings – and remained hopeful, at times too hopeful, about the march of progress and the prospects for emancipation in the world. In retrospect, the Holocaust and the countless wars, murders, and dispossessions, both preceding and following the twentieth century, appear to have tarnished any residual hope in the notion of historical progress. While unquestionably critical of Marx’s and Engels’ faith in historical progress in connection with the Jewish Question, Traverso’s most recent work on revolution is more attentive to the presence of ‘ambivalence’ in Marx’s and Engels’s attitudes towards revolution, social transformation, and historical progress.[6]

In general, there has been an impressive renaissance of Marxist scholarship in recent years, coinciding with the ongoing MEGA2 initiative, which has called into question long-held assumptions about Marx and Engels’ irredeemable Eurocentrism, their supposedly unshaken faith in a linear conception of historical progress, including their erstwhile support for British colonialism, as well as their apparent silence on issues of nationality, race, gender, and non-Western societies. What continues to emerge from these scholarly contributions are more nuanced and multifaceted ‘pictures’ of Marx and Engels with which readers are less familiar and comfortable, coloured as prevailing interpretations have been by the Cold War legacy and the practice of selective editing by Marx and Engels’ previous handlers.[7] This is not to suggest that Marx and Engels are beyond reproach; they are not. They were undeniably children of their time, but were also able to rise decisively above many prejudices of their own time. One thinks here of Marx’s pragmatic openness to non-capitalist roads to communism, including his opposition to any attempts at suprahistorical theory, Marx and Engels’ principled positions against racist slavery in the United States and its direct connection with the workers’ movement, and their support for decolonisation and national struggles for self-determination, whether in Poland, Ireland, or India.[8]

In what follows, I do not pretend to unearth previously concealed archival material. Rather, I return to well-known texts, written primarily by Marx, and through a careful and critical reconstruction I show that Marx and Engels have more to offer contemporary readers as regards the Jewish Question than their critics have cared to acknowledge.

Marx died in 1883 and Engels in 1895, so what will be offered in the first section of the article is a critical reconstruction of their most pertinent theoretical reflections on the Jewish Question, which I maintain can still clarify the struggles of our own time. A critical reconstruction should not be confused with an uncritical defence of Marx and Engels, nor should it be regarded as a fateful quest to defend all their pronouncements on Jews and Judaism, whatever their merits. At its best, a critical reconstruction, according to Jürgen Habermas’s frequently cited formulation, ‘signifies taking a theory apart and putting it back together in a new form in order to attain more fully the goal that it has set for itself.’[9] In this case, by critically reconstructing Marx and Engels’ reflections on the Jewish Question, this article will reappropriate their most fruitful contributions with the aim of achieving more consistently the tasks that they set for themselves. While problematic aspects of their pronouncements about Jews and Judaism will be criticised, the underlying aim of this reconstruction is to highlight their potentially constructive contributions to contemporary struggles against antisemitism. For this and other reasons, greater emphasis will be given to the specific political contexts that informed their interventions on this topic. Similarly, rather than interpreting Marx and Engels as engaging primarily with their contemporaries (e.g., Ludwig Feuerbach, Bruno Bauer, etc.), I approach them foremost as revolutionary activists who were deeply involved in the day-to-day struggles of their time, including struggles for Jewish emancipation. In effect, this means approaching their ‘texts’ as active political interventions rather than as abstract and decontextualised contributions to the history of ideas.

It should also be noted that the critical reconstruction offered in this article differs in important ways from other approaches that question the heuristic value of reconstructing Marx and Engels’s reflections on the Jewish Question for the purpose of confronting contemporary antisemitism, whether because of their seemingly unshakable faith in historical progress[10] or due to the dramatic political-economic changes that have reshaped Jewish identity since 1948.[11] The latter approach is arguably more amenable to the critical reconstruction being undertaken here to the extent that it draws on some elements of the Marxist tradition to make sense of contemporary antisemitism, albeit with greater reliance on interventions from decolonial thought, critical race theory, and identity studies.[12] While Marx and Engels did not develop a distinct theoretical approach for the study of antisemitism, their critical insights can be deployed to make sense of contemporary antisemitism and the enduring Jewish Question.

II. Revisiting the Jewish Question: A History of Persecution and De-emancipation

Before turning to Marx’s ‘On the Jewish Question’, it would help to say a few words about the Rhineland Jewish community’s historical experience of religious persecution and the political exclusions to which it gave rise. In recent years, prominent biographers of Marx have paid more attention to the post-revolutionary emancipation of Rhenish Jews, who were subsequently de-emancipated by the Kingdom of Prussia in 1815. This process of de-emancipation had a profound impact on Rhineland’s Jewish community. Heschel (later known as Heinrich) Marx’s life changed dramatically after the 1815 Prussian Restoration. As is well known, Karl Marx’s father, Heinrich, a descendant of a rabbinical family turned liberal humanist, was compelled to convert to Lutheranism in order to maintain his legal practice. However, Heinrich’s brother, Samuel, continued his rabbinical duties in Trier long after Heinrich’s wife, his son Karl, and other children had been baptised.[13] In short, the legacy of post-1815 de-emancipation was anything but inconsequential for Rhenish Jews. In his recent discussion of the dramatic changes experienced by Rhenish Jews during this period, Shlomo Avineri observes:

In the years between 1815 and 1848 one can discern a deep feeling of alienation and consequent political radicalization among members of the Jewish intelligentsia in the Rhineland and the emergence among them – much more than among the more quietistic Jewish communities in Prussia proper – of radical politics; some did convert under that pressure, but this did not make them more supportive of the system imposed on them; others, while distancing themselves from orthodox Judaism, did try to maintain their Jewish identity in one way or another. But it is among them that one finds the pioneers of radical democracy, revolutionary socialism, and a profound critique of bourgeois society and German nationalism.[14]

I will not speculate here about how Karl Marx understood the impact of the post-1815 period on Trier’s Jewish community. It suffices to note that these political changes had immediate consequences for Marx’s family and contributed to his subsequent development as a ‘Rhineland radical’.[15]

This historical reality of de-emancipation also helps explain why leaders of Rhineland’s Jewish community approached the then 25-year-old Marx with a petition demanding equal civil and political rights for Jews. Marx recounted this petition in his 1843 letter to Ruge:

I have just been visited by the chief of the Jewish community here, who has asked me for a petition for the Jews to the Provincial Assembly, and I am willing to do it. However much I dislike the Jewish faith, Bauer’s view seems to me too abstract. The thing is to make as many breaches as possible in the Christian state and to smuggle in as much as we can of what is rational. At least, it must be attempted – and the embitterment grows with every petition that is rejected with protestations.[16]

Marx’s recollection of events is worth delving into, not least because it provides a helpful context for his subsequent critique of Bruno Bauer, as well as his unambiguous support for the emancipation of Jews in ‘On the Jewish Question’, in The Holy Family (written jointly with Engels), and in his journalistic reflections on the ‘History of the Eastern Question’ for theNew-York Daily Tribune. These texts form the core of Marx’s reflections on the Jewish Question. The critical reconstruction that follows will draw on these texts, as well as Engels’ 1890 reflection on antisemitism, to demonstrate the extent to which the insights of Marx and Engels can clarify the normative and political stakes of the Jewish Question today.

What makes Marx’s ‘On the Jewish Question’ a particularly incisive work of political theory is its framing. Bruno Bauer’s opposition to the equal rights of Jews is used by Marx as a foil for dissecting the potential and limitations ofpolitical emancipation within the framework of the modern constitutional state. In that essay, Marx takes the claims of a particular group (Jews) for equal rights as a ‘problem’ that is universal rather than particular in character, and whose ‘solution’ is likewise universal. Whereas Bauer faulted the Jews for their unwillingness to renounce Judaism in search of a privileged status within a German Christian state, Marx turned the question back on Bauer by asking on what basis he could demand that the Jews renounce their faith in order to be granted equal rights.[17] In Marx’s view, there was no rational basis for Bauer’s demand, since the most developed modern state presupposes the legal protection of religious conscience as a constitutional right.[18] The fact that Jews could not enjoy the same catalogue of rights betrayed the reactionary character of the Christian Prussian state, as well as the prejudiced attitudes of thinkers like Bauer, for whom Christians were better fit for political emancipation than Jews. As is well known, Marx did not limit his critique of Bauer to the question of who is deserving of rights and who is not; rather, his critique acknowledged the value of political emancipation (i.e., being granted equal rights) as great progress but also identified its inherent limitations in bourgeois society.[19] Marx recognised that one could be a rights bearer in this or that state and yet remain unfree, simultaneously experience and reproduce discriminatory practices, and in the end remain dependent on the exigencies of a capitalist market system that routinely reduces individuals to the playthings of alien powers.[20]

The inadequacies of such a liberation reaffirmed for Marx the difference between political emancipation andhuman emancipation. As we shall see, however, the struggle to realise any fuller conception of human emancipation was not to be understood as the unique political task of a particular religion, national identity, or ethnostate. Instead, it was correctly conceived by Marx as a universal task.[21]

As was noted earlier, Marx returned to the Jewish Question in The Holy Family, a polemic written jointly with Engels against the Bauer brothers and their followers. Marx’s decision to revisit the Jewish Question shows that he considered this question sufficiently important to warrant further commentary, especially since Bauer’s work had met with critical rejoinders by Jewish intellectuals, whose conclusions about the political emancipation of Jews Marx shared. Marx’s discussion of the Jewish Question in The Holy Family helps supplement and round out the position he developed in his earlier essay.

One can discern at least five points that receive closer elaboration by Marx in The Holy Family. The first is that Bauer’s misguided approach to the question of Jewish emancipation leads him to erroneous ‘prophecies of the decay of nationalities’.[22] This insight is revealing, for Marx and Engels have been criticised for engaging in precisely the same kind of naive prophesying of the end of nations, even though they held more sophisticated views on this topic in the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions across central Europe.[23] The second point is that Marx takes the opportunity to respond to Bauer’s prejudiced charge that the historical contribution of Jews has been an ‘eyesore’ to the (Christian) world. Clearly identifying with his Jewish ancestry in this context, Marx responds that ‘something which has been an eyesore to me from birth, as the Jews have been to the Christian world, and which persists and develops with the eye is not an ordinary sore, but a wonderful one, one that really belongs to my eye and must even contribute to a highly original development of my eyesight.’[24] Marx is criticising Bauer’s secularised prejudice against Jews,[25] whereby the worst features of modernity’s commercialised ethos are hypocritically projected onto Jews, even though New England Protestants (to use Marx’s example in ‘On the Jewish Question’) were guided by a thoroughly commercialised ethic.[26] Marx finds a similar hypocrisy in the avowedly secular French constitutional republic, which continued to discriminate against Jews because of Christianity’s religious predominance in that country. Marx writes:

Now, according to free [liberal] theory, Jews and Christians are equal, but according to this practice Christians have a privilege over Jews; for otherwise how could the Sunday of the Christians have a place in a law made for all Frenchmen? Should not the Jewish Sabbath have the same right, etc.? Or in the practical life of the French too, the Jew is not really oppressed by Christian privileges; but the law does not dare to express this practical equality.[27]

Jews and Christians were deemed equals in the eyes of French law, and yet in this passage Marx identifies the extent to which Jews remained unequal as a matter of fact.

It is striking that recent commentators on Marx’s attitude towards religious toleration, such as Michael Ignatieff, continue to ignore these critical insights and erroneously conclude that

Marx’s hostility toward the religious toleration granted to Jews and others during the French Revolution was to last for the rest of his life. In 1875, six years before his death, he [Marx] condemned the German Social Democrats’ Gotha Program for endorsing religious toleration. He thought they should abolish religion altogether.[28]

Had Ignatieff read Marx’s work with greater care, he would notice that Marx not only affirms freedom of conscience but also reiterates the particular importance, for a self-professed workers’ party, of liberating conscience from the ‘witchery’ of religion. In Marx’s words:

‘Freedom of conscience’! If one desired at this time of the Kulturkampf to remind liberalism of its old catchwords, it surely could have been done only in the following form: Everyone should be able to attend to his religious as well as his bodily needs without the police sticking their noses in. But the workers’ party ought at any rate in this connection to have expressed its awareness of the fact that bourgeois ‘freedom of conscience’ is nothing but the toleration of all possible kinds of religious freedom of conscience, and that for its part it endeavours rather to liberate the conscience from the witchery of religion. But one chooses not to transgress the ‘bourgeois’ level.[29]

Far from exhibiting hostility towards religious toleration, Marx affirms two interconnected ‘liberal’ rights: freedom of religious conscience and freedomfrom religious conscience. At no point does Marx endorse the forceful abolition of religion that is attributed to him by Ignatieff. On the contrary, in an 1878 interview with theChicago Tribune, Marx maintains that ‘violent measures against religion are nonsense; but this is an opinion: as socialism grows, religion will disappear. Its disappearance must be done by social development, in which education must play a part.’[30] One can take legitimate issue with Marx’s optimistic ‘opinion’ concerning the progressive disappearance of religion under socialism without mischaracterising his considered views, which demonstrate a thoroughgoing commitment to the emancipation of Jews and support for freedom of conscience.

The final two points that are worth stressing here are closely connected to Marx’s earlier insight about the hypocrisy of the modern Christian state in relation to its Jewish minority. The first, pointing back to Marx’s earlier essay, is that the defective character of the modern state is not the fault of Jews, nor is the struggle for human emancipation to be understood as the special responsibility of Jews. Marx explains:

The emancipation of the Jews into human beings, or the human emancipation of Jewry, was therefore not conceived, as by Herr Bauer, as the special task of the Jews, but as a general practical task of the present-day world, which is Jewish to the core. It was proved that the task of abolishing the essence of Jewry is actually the task of abolishing the Jewish character of civil society, abolishing the inhumanity of the present-day practice of life, the most extreme expression of which is the money system.[31]

Second, far from ridiculing the project of political emancipation, Marx maintains that the degree to which Jews have been emancipated politically should be regarded as a benchmark for evaluating the general development and normative status of modern states. He writes:

The Jews (like the Christians) are fully politically emancipated in various states. Both Jews and Christians are far from being humanly emancipated. Hence there must be a difference between political and human emancipation. The essence of political emancipation, i.e., of the developed, modern state, must therefore be studied. On the other hand, states which cannot yet politically emancipate the Jews must be rated by comparison with the perfected political state and shown to be under-developed states.[32]

Consequently, the political emancipation (or, alternatively, the de-emancipation) of Jews offers a valuable prism for assessing the normative status of purportedly modern states.            

Having provided an explication of Marx’s early reflections on the Jewish Question, it would be irresponsible to sidestep the long-standing controversy surrounding Marx’s antisemitism, particularly his inexcusable antisemitic attacks against Ferdinand Lassalle, whom Marx derided as a ‘Jewish nigger’ in a 1862 letter to Engels.[33] To be sure, a lot of ink has been spilt on this topic, ranging from those who take issue with Marx’s use of the ‘Economic-Jew Stereotype’[34] to those who read into Marx’s early essay a political aspiration for ‘a world without Jews’.[35] Rather than engaging with either of these misguided interpretations, I will critically assess the most charitable interpretations of Marx’s early essay that have been put forward by David McLellan and Hal Draper. I will also point to an important instance where Marx’s immanent critique of Bauer’s ‘abstract’ approach to the Jewish Question succumbs to anti-Jewish tropes that Marxists must criticise head on.

A word of caution is also in order here. It is understandable that many contemporary critics often rush to denounce Marx as antisemitic for his choice of rhetoric in ‘On the Jewish Question’, particularly when that work is read out of context and in the genocidal aftermath of the Shoah. But even if these charges against Marx are anachronistic, careful readers should take care to distinguish clear instances of anti-Jewish prejudice in Marx’s writings from those where he is engaging in a refutation of anti-Jewish prejudices. The latter is evidenced most clearly, if not always consistently, in his critique of Bauer’s anti-Jewish tract, which is often attributed erroneously to Marx. There are other occasions when Marx’s antisemitism is simply taken for granted. Consider his opening thesis on Feuerbach, a part of which reads as follows: ‘InDas Wesen des Christentums [The Essence of Christianity], he [Feuerbach] regards the theoretical attitude as the only genuinely human attitude, while practice is conceived and fixed only in its dirty Judaical manifestation.’[36] Readers unfamiliar with Feuerbach’s text are bound to conclude that Marx is guilty of harbouring anti-Jewish sentiments. However, in his chapter on ‘The Doctrine of Creation’, it is Feuerbach who argues that ‘the Jews have maintained their peculiarity to this day. Their principle, their God, is the most practical principle in the world – namely, egoism; and moreover egoism in the form of religion.’[37] Far from agreeing with Feuerbach’s prejudiced characterisation of Judaism and his deprecation of practice relative to the (Christian-inspired) ‘theoretical attitude,’ Marx concludes the same thesis by affirming that Feuerbach ‘does not grasp the significance of “revolutionary”, of practical-critical, activity.’[38] In a later context, immediately after describing the phenomenon of ‘commodity fetishism’ in Capital, Marx writes that ‘trading nations, properly so called, exist in the ancient world only in its interstices, like the Gods of Epicurus in the Intermundia, or like the Jews in the pores of Polish society.’[39] Far from engaging in antisemitic animus, Marx’s passing sociological observations about the historical situation of Polish Jews offered an important theoretical point of departure for Abram Leon’s famous study on the Jewish Question. While Marx should not be excused for deploying racist slurs against his opponents (e.g., Ferdinand Lassalle),[40] charges of anti-Jewish prejudice in Marx’s thought should not be made lightly, especially when they are taken entirely out of context. With these preliminary provisions, we can critically assess the interpretations offered by David McLellan and Hal Draper.

According to David McLellan’s still provocative thesis, Marx’s ‘On the Jewish Question’ is best read against the background of the Left Hegelian and German cultural milieu of the early 1840s in which it was written. This milieu took for granted the parochial use of the German word Judentum, which carried the double meaning of ‘Jew’ and ‘commerce’. It should therefore not come as a surprise, according to McLellan, that Marx played on the double meaning of this term in his 1844 essay. McLellan’s interpretive insight is that Marx’s essay was concerned foremost with the critique of bourgeois society and its commercial ethos rather than with Jews or Judaism.[41] Drawing partly on McLellan’s interpretation, Hal Draper observes that this so-called ‘Economic-Jew Stereotype’ was widespread among nineteenth-century liberal Jews, early pioneers of Zionism, and socialists, most of whom were principally committed to the cause of Jewish emancipation. Draper interprets the retrospective practice of attributing antisemitic motives to Marx’s essay as selective pixillation, which ignores the real question at the time, namely, whether one was in favour or against the emancipation of Jews.[42]In Draper’s words, ‘this was the Jewish question that Marx discussed, not the one that dominated the minds of a sick society a century later.’[43]

I am sympathetic to the interpretations proffered by McLellan and Draper. However, in their attempts to exculpate Marx from retroactive charges of antisemitism, they both overlook an important shortcoming on Marx’s part. Even if Marx was unambiguously in favour of Jewish emancipation, this neither explains nor excuses his succumbing to anti-Jewish tropes in the process of criticising Bauer and defending the rights of Jews. As we have seen, Marx took issue with Bauer’s ‘abstract’ approach to the Jewish Question and advanced an immanent critique of that approach, demonstrating that religious conscience is not a barrier to political emancipation, and furthermore that political emancipation should not be confused with human emancipation. The shortcoming of Marx’s immanent critique is evident when he uncritically rehearses the anti-Jewish tropes upon which Bauer’s account was based. More specifically, in Part II of ‘On the Jewish Question’, Marx makes the following observation regarding the ‘everyday Jew’: ‘We discern in Judaism, therefore, a universal antisocial element of thepresent time, whose historical development, zealously aided in its harmful aspects by the Jews, has now attained its culminating point.’[44] Upon reading this passage, even the most charitable interpreter of the Judentum interpretation would have to concede that Marx exhibited an inexcusable prejudice against Jews.[45] Nothing should bar contemporary Marxists from thoroughly condemning this prejudiced dimension in Part II of Marx’s essay, especially since his goal was to defend the equal rights of Jews.

Notwithstanding his choice of rhetoric and method of presentation, Marx’s methodological approach to the Jewish Question should be critically reconstructed and redeployed to shed light on contemporary debates concerning antisemitism, discrimination against minorities, and the oppression of stateless people. The reasons for this are twofold. First, Marx’s normative benchmark for assessing the character of a state applies equally to all states and is based on the degree to which they vindicate political emancipation. Second, states are to be judged based in particular on the degree to which they succeed in politically emancipating their historically most oppressed members. In the contemporary world, these groups include women, religious, ethnic, and racialised minorities, the LGBTQ+ community, and migrants who are fleeing war and persecution. The struggle for political emancipation remains part and parcel of a broader struggle for human emancipation around the world, and for Marxists this should involve a politics of concrete internationalism, anti-imperialism, and the subordination of national economies to robust democratic control.

Fortunately, The Holy Family was not Marx’s definitive word on the Jewish Question. In a largely neglected but revealing article on the ‘History of The Eastern Question’, published in 1854 for theNew-York Daily Tribune, Marx offered a sympathetic reflection on the oppression endured by the Jews of Jerusalem. It is worth noting that Marx’s article does not bear the imprints of the problematic ‘Economic-Jew Stereotype’ that coloured his earlier reflections on the Jewish Question. On the contrary, Marx demonstrates in this article an acute sensitivity to the ‘Jewish aspiration to a distinct separate identity’,[46] even though he does not identify anywhere with Judaism, or for that matter with proto-Zionism. Marx’s reflections are worth quoting at length:

The sedentary population of Jerusalem numbers about 15,500 souls, of whom 4,000 are Mussulmans and 8,000 Jews, The Mussulmans, forming about a fourth part of the whole, and consisting of Turks, Arabs and Moors, are, of course, the masters in every respect, as they are in no way affected with the weakness of their Government at Constantinople. Nothing equals the misery and the sufferings of the Jews at Jerusalem, inhabiting the most filthy quarter of the town, called hareth-el-yahoud, the quarter of dirt,[47] between the Zion and the Moriah, where their synagogues are situated – the constant objects of Mussulman oppression and intolerance, insulted by the Greeks, persecuted by the Latins, and living only upon the scanty alms transmitted by their European brethren. The Jews, however, are not natives, but from different and distant countries, and are only attracted to Jerusalem by the desire of inhabiting the Valley of Jehosaphat, and to die in the very places where the redemptor is to be expected.[48]

Marx assigns far more significance in this context to the interplay among religious, national, and economic (imperialist) factors for a proper understanding of the complexities involved in the so-called ‘Eastern Question’. This is evidenced by his attention to the exacerbation of Jewish oppression that resulted from the joint decision by England and Prussia to install an Anglican bishop in Jerusalem, which had the unintended consequence of forging a ‘union between all the religions at Jerusalem’.[49] At the conclusion of his article, Marx asserts that Jerusalem and its Holy Places (sites of religious diversity and conflict) ‘conceal a profane battle, not only of nations but of races; and that the Protectorate of the Holy Places which appears ridiculous to the Occident but all important to the Orientals is one of the phases of the Oriental question incessantly reproduced, constantly stifled, but never solved.’[50]

It is striking that Marx’s 1854 article, which offers a more nuanced consideration of religion, nationality, and race, is far less discussed than his earlier reflections on the Jewish Question. Absent countervailing evidence, there is no reason to think that Marx’s description of Jewish oppression in Jerusalem was unfounded or exaggerated.[51] The principled commitment of Marxists to peaceful coexistence between Jews and Muslims in particular should not rest upon a romanticised depiction of the Ottoman Empire, which while favourable to Jews relative to the brutal history of antisemitic persecution in Europe, was hardly an oasis of political toleration and equality. In any case, Marxists should not be in the business of cherishing empires, whether ‘Western’, ‘Eastern’, or some other variety.[52] The various manifestations of oppression must be consistently condemned and fought against in the spirit of concrete internationalism. As we will see, this internationalism extends to the oppression of Palestinians under Israel’s military occupation; indeed, if one were to reconstruct and ‘update’ Marx’s 1854 article to reflect the contemporary political realities confronting the residents of Jerusalem, it is the Israelis who are the masters in every respect, while nothing equals the misery and the sufferings of the Palestinians, who routinely are faced with dispossession, humiliation, and death under Israel’s military occupation.[53]

Whereas Marx’s last and most elaborate pronouncements on the Jewish Question appeared in the 1854 article discussed above, Engels revisited the topic of antisemitism in his correspondence of 18 April 1890, seven years after Marx’s death. Engels’ earliest views on the Jewish Question mirrored Bauer’s prejudiced outlook on Jews, specifically the charge that Eastern Jews were a ‘people without history’, and worse epithets.[54] By 1890, however, Engels’ views on the Jewish Question had undergone considerable change, evidencing an awareness of Jewish persecution and an appreciation of the extent to which Jews continued to make important contributions to the international workers’ movement. Engels’ first observation parallels Marx’s reflections from 1854:

The antisemite presents the facts in an entirely false light. He doesn’t even know the Jews he decries, otherwise he would be aware that, thanks to antisemitism in eastern Europe, and to the Spanish Inquisition in Turkey, there are here in England and in America thousands upon thousands of Jewish proletarians; and it is precisely, these Jewish workers who are the worst exploited and the most poverty-stricken.[55]

His second observation is equally revealing:

Furthermore, we are far too deeply indebted to the Jews. Leaving aside Heine and Börne, Marx was a full-blooded Jew; Lassalle was a Jew. Many of our best people are Jews. My friend Victor Adler, who is now atoning in a Viennese prison for his devotion to the cause of the proletariat, Eduard Bernstein, editor of the London Sozialdemokrat, Paul Singer, one of our best men in the Reichstag – people whom I am proud to call my friends, and all of them Jewish![56]

As for the fate of antisemitism, Engels certainly engaged in hopeful but unwarranted optimism – unwarranted, above all, from a retrospective standpoint. He writes: ‘Antisemitism is merely the reaction of declining medieval social strata against a modern society consisting essentially of capitalists and wage-labourers, so that all it serves are reactionary ends under a purportedly socialist cloak; it is a degenerate form of feudal socialism and we can have nothing to do with that.’[57] Such was Engels’ mature position on antisemitism.

It is against such hopeful speculations about the emancipatory future that Enzo Traverso takes Engels to task for his ‘ambivalent legacy’ on the Jewish Question, one which ‘clearly denounced the rise of antisemitism in Germany and Austria’ [but] ‘nourished the illusion that antisemitism was condemned to disappear, to be inevitably erased by modernity and progress.’[58] To be sure, with the benefit of a century’s hindsight, Traverso is correct to note that Engels should have been more circumspect in his implicit prognosis, especially since he also acknowledged in 1886 that ‘for the history of mankind, too, there is not only an ascending but also a descending branch.’[59] A more hermeneutically charitable approach to Engels’ correspondence would reconstruct those insights that remain prescient in today’s struggles against antisemitism. Three such insights can be gleaned from Engels’ correspondence. First, Marxists should be far better informed than they have been about the history of antisemitism and racist prejudice more generally. Second, Marxists should not have anything to do with antisemites, however much they may profess ‘socialist commitments’ or exhibit anti-capitalist animus. Finally, Marxists should celebrate the contributions of Jews and other oppressed groups to the politics of internationalism, both historically and in ongoing struggles against neo-fascism and imperialism.

III. The Russian Revolution: Emancipatory Hopes and Historical Discontents

Between Engels’ reflections on antisemitism in 1890 and the October Revolution of 1917, the infamous Dreyfus Affair shook France, whose revolutionary spirit inaugurated the emancipation of Jews in an earlier era. Pogroms and state-backed violence against Jews intensified across the Russian Empire. The Russian Revolution of 1905 helped spark the first wave of massive protests against autocratic Tsarist rule, which coincided with the emergence of a group of young Jewish working-class radicals in the Pale of Settlement who saw in these revolutionary upheavals the seeds for their own emancipation, as Jews fighting antisemitic pogroms and as workers struggling against exploitation.[60] It should not come as a surprise that Russian Jews – relegated to the Pale of Settlement and routinely subject to pogroms and humiliation by Tsarist-backed gangs – saw universalist possibilities in the revolutions of 1905 and 1917.

As is well known, the All-Russian Congress of Soviets passed a decree against antisemitism and Jewish pogroms on 25 July 1918. Nevertheless, legal history teaches that deeply entrenched forms of prejudice cannot simply be decreed out of existence. While antisemitic violence was largely the product of reactionary White Guard forces and their allies, the Bolsheviks were confronted early on with the brutal phenomenon of ‘Red pogroms’, which were orchestrated by peasants and workers who were partial to the revolution and its goals. Red pogroms were rooted in the popular conflation of Jew and bourgeois among the Russian peasantry and working class, with the result that the Bolsheviks were compelled to decouple fervent class antagonisms against the bourgeoisie from virulent forms of antisemitic violence.[61] This task of ‘decoupling’ proved far more cumbersome in practice, and its sources were religious, cultural, economic, and in a word, historical. It is against this background that Isaac Deutscher perceptively observed:

As elsewhere, so in Russia, the prejudice and hatred that had been inculcated into the minds of people over centuries and millennia, were not to be rooted out in the course of a few years or even decades. This was not all. Another ingredient fed the antisemitism of the masses. The poor Russian peasant looked with distrust at the Jewish shopkeeper or innkeeper, whose trade was often fraudulent. In that abysmal misery in which the latter lived, he may have tried to relieve his own poverty at the expense of the muzhik, who was as wretched himself. And here is to be seen in the making of that antagonism of the old peasant or worker towards his Jewish neighbour.[62]

Deutscher’s reflections attest to Marx’s painful reminder that the ‘the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living’[63] which in this case, greatly inhibited the long-awaited poetry of the future.

Notwithstanding such fraught circumstances, there were persistent struggles against antisemitism in the early years of the October Revolution, often spearheaded by Jewish radicals through their involvement in government committees like the Yevsektsiia andYevkom, which exerted pressure on the Bolsheviks to confront the stubborn reality of antisemitism within and beyond their revolutionary ranks.[64] Many of these Jewish socialists were involved in the Bund or in the comparatively smallerPoale Zion, the latter developing a territorial outlook vis-à-vis the Jewish working class that theBund vehemently rejected.[65] Despite their struggles against antisemitism in post-revolutionary Russia, the 1930s saw the disbanding of Jewish political and cultural organisations in the Soviet Union, whose representatives were murdered or had disappeared in the Great Purges of Stalinist terror. Antisemitism would take on the most arbitrary character under Stalinism, whereby Soviet Jews were variously denounced as ‘Zionists’, ‘Trotskyist wreckers’, or ‘rootless cosmopolitans’, depending on what was expedient at any given time. Such epithets were arguably even more damaging in their practical effects on Soviet Jews than Winston Churchill’s earlier antisemitic distinction between ‘bad’ international Jews and ‘good’ Zionist Jews.[66] Granted, although Jewish families were given priority by the Soviet government in evacuations from Ukraine and other occupied regions of the Soviet Union during the Nazi invasion, the profound toll taken on Soviet Jewish life was followed by Stalin’s antisemitic campaigns against the Jewish doctors between 1948 and 1953.[67] According to some accounts, Stalin’s long-term aim was to expel all Soviet Jews to Birobidzhan.[68] To be sure, antisemitism did not disappear after Stalin’s death; instead, it became more latent and increasingly bureaucratised. Institutionalised antisemitism was facilitated in part by the Soviet passport, which clearly specified Jewish nationality in its fifth paragraph. This paragraph became a means by which Soviet Jews were discriminated against. Looking back at the October Revolution and its aftermath, McGeever rightly concludes that ‘this was a revolution that promised liberation from antisemitism; its actuality, however, overdetermined them as Jews.’[69] For all its emancipatory aspirations, then, the October Revolution and its Soviet legacy failed to emancipate Jews.

IV. The Legacy of the Holocaust, the Nationalist Abyss, and the Ongoing Nakba

The Jewish Question found its most brutal expression in the ‘Final Solution’ that culminated in the Shoah, the most horrific crime committed against European Jewry by the Nazis and their collaborators. In the immediate aftermath of the Shoah, Jews who survived Nazi ghettos and concentration camps, as well as Stalin’s Gulags, understandably had doubts about the possibility of living in peace with their non-Jewish neighbours, some of whom had collaborated with the Nazis.[70] In one infamous example, when Jewish survivors and refugees returned to the Polish city of Kielce to reclaim their property and resume their lives, they were met with renewed pogroms and brutality from the local population.[71] It is important to recall here that when Jews were fleeing Nazi genocide in Europe, Western countries like Britain, the United States, and Canada were reluctant to accept Jewish refugees, and sometimes were explicitly hostile to the idea.[72] Not surprisingly, some Jews also fled to British Mandate Palestine, which many regarded as a measure of last resort. In retrospect, Isaac Deutscher’s metaphor of the burning house remains helpful for understanding how Europe’s Jewish Question gave way to the Palestinian Question:

A man once jumped from the top floor of a burning house in which many members of his family had already perished. He managed to save his own life; but as he was falling, he hit a person standing down below and broke that person’s legs and arms. The jumping man had no choice; yet to the man with the broken limbs he was the cause of his misfortune. If both behaved rationally, they would not become enemies. The man who escaped from the blazing house, having recovered, would have tried to help and console the other sufferer; and the latter might have realized that he was the victim of circumstances over which neither of them had control.[73]

But rationality did not prevail. Instead, the war of 1948 between the Yishuv paramilitaries and the combined armies of Egypt, Transjordan, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon culminated in the latter’s defeat, paving the way for the creation of the Israeli state and for the Nakba, which saw the expulsion from their homes of more than 750,000 Palestinian Arabs, who have not been allowed to return since.[74] One could argue on counterfactual grounds that different historical trajectories were possible in Palestine – for example, the creation of a democratically socialist and binational state for Jews and Arabs, or two states living side by side under conditions of peace and mutual recognition. There is an unfortunate tendency in historical-political analysis to succumb to the fatalistic ‘blackmail of a single alternative,’[75] whereby the victorious narrative is either uncritically endorsed or denounced, while the losing ones are repressed and excised from historical memory.

Those who have a more expansive historical memory will recall the existence of Jewish socialist groups in Palestine, such as Brit Shalom, Hashomer Hazair, and the left faction of the Poale Zion, which were principally committed to a binational state in Palestine where Jews and Arabs would enjoy equal rights.[76] Not everyone shared this principled commitment across the Jewish-Palestinian Arab divide, whether one takes the triumphant labour Zionists or the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Amin al-Husseini, who openly expressed political sympathies for the Nazis during the Shoah. The Grand Mufti’s association with the Nazis should not be taken as a general representation of Arab attitudes towards Jews in Palestine,[77] nor should labour Zionism’s triumph erase or eclipse the memory of Jewish support for a binational state in Palestine. History may be written by the victors, but it is neither a cause for celebration nor a reason for historical erasure. Might does not make right, particularly when the suffering of one group gives way to the ongoing dispossession and suffering of another.[78]

In retrospect, the pyrrhic victory of labour Zionism and the subsequent consolidation of the Israeli state were also setbacks for the cause of Jewish emancipation as human emancipation. The Zionist vision of establishing a homeland where Jews could live peacefully, freely, and equitably has been contradicted by the prevalence of perpetual insecurity, hierarchy, and discrimination among Israeli Jews, not to mention the Palestinians citizens of Israel. The distinguished scholar of European fascism, Zeev Sternell, observed that labour Zionists, who were instrumental to the consolidation of the Israeli state, placed ‘socialism’ in the service of the ‘nation’. However, the process of Israeli nation-building was rooted first and foremost in conquest of the land rather than in the universal quest for human emancipation.[79] Not surprisingly, the nature of such nation-building has been accompanied by the proliferation of illegal settlements and the continuing dispossession of Palestinians of their land.

It falls beyond the scope of this article to pontificate about what should be done to address the interlocking Jewish and Palestinian questions in Israel-Palestine, except to reiterate that there is no way forward without addressing persisting wrongs, which include the Nakba, as well as the dispossession of Arab Jews in the years leading up to the creation of Israel.[80] Any solution will require concrete practices of internationalism and an anti-imperialist politics that confronts existing forms of oppression and works towards a democratic socialist state that respects the rights of all nations to self-determination.[81] Here too one can find inspiration in Marx and Engels at their strongest. Engels famously observed that ‘a nation cannot become free and at the same time continue to oppress other nations.’[82] Marx, for his part, surmised that ‘any people that oppresses another people forges its own chains.’ Concrete internationalism, which was possible before, is urgently necessary today.[83]

Conclusion: Retrieving Marxist Internationalism and Rethinking the Jewish Question Today

The Jewish Question remains a thoroughly political question which has universal application precisely because it is rooted in the struggle for human emancipation. The persistence of antisemitism and the proliferation of toxic nationalisms (to say nothing of neo-fascisms) around the world are fateful reminders about the urgency of Marxist internationalism – one that is sensitive to the global history of persecution and oppression. Marxist internationalism should not be confused with abstract assimilationism, which dissolves the identities of concrete individuals and peoples, such that everyone is regarded simply as a worker and everything else about them is ignored.[84] At its best, Marx’s approach to the Jewish Question provides a yardstick for judging the normative status of contemporary states, including those which claim to speak on behalf of all Jews, and in so doing reminds us that every emancipation is a retrieval of human powers and relationships. With the rise of neo-fascist movements and the resurgence of authoritarianism around the world, there is no more pressing a time for revisiting the moral and political stakes of the Jewish Question. The particularity of the Jewish Question has also been the harbinger of that universality and unconditional solidarity that many Jews, including Deutscher, shared with the ‘persecuted’ and the ‘exterminated’.[85] The Jewish Question remains deeply bound up with the incomplete project of human emancipation. The ongoing struggle against antisemitism around the world remains an indispensable part of this unfinished project and its ongoing discontents.


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[1] My interest in the Jewish Question stems from an earlier study of Marx’s largely misunderstood critique of liberalism in Shoikhedbrod 2019a, as well as my recent reviews of Shlomo Avineri’s and Enzo Travero’s books on this topic; see Shoikhedbrod 2019b and 2020 respectively. It is regrettable that Jordy Cummings (2020) took the occasion to write a baseless attack on my review of Traverso’s book, managing to misconstrue not one but two of my reviews. My reviews were supported with direct references to page numbers from the works in question, in contrast to Cummings’ ad hominem tract. Cummings’ accusatory title of ‘bad faith’ betrays a basic misunderstanding of the term. In both its conventional and existentialist meanings, ‘bad faith’ entails a deliberate attempt to deceive oneself and others while avoiding relevant facts and choices.

[2] Leon 1970.

[3] For a spirited critique of Leon’s central thesis, see Ruben 1982.

[4] Traverso 2019, p.216.

[5] Traverso 2019, p. 220.

[6]Traverso 2021.

[7] For a general sense of this renaissance, see Musto 2020a, 2020b; Carver 2018; Anderson 2016.

[8] Losurdo 2016.

[9]Habermas 1979, p. 95.

[10]Traverso 2019.

[11] Bakan 2014; Englert 2018.

[12] Bakan 2014.

[13]Avineri 2019, p. 12.

[14] Avineri 2019, p. 8. Avineri’s observation about political radicalisation resulting from a sense of political alienation among secular European Jews is reaffirmed and elaborated in Jonathan Israel 2021.

[15] For a more extensive treatment of the Rhineland’s radicals, including Marx, see Sperber 1991.

[16] Marx 1975, p. 400.

[17] Marx 1978a, p. 30.

[18]Marx 1978a, p. 31.

[19] Marx 1978a, p. 35.

[20]Marx 1978a, pp. 43–6.

[21] Marx 1978a, p. 40.

[22] Marx and Engels 1975, p. 98. For a concise treatment of Marx’s ‘On the Jewish Question’ in connection with TheHoly Family, see Avineri 1964.

[23] For a well researched and balanced treatment on this topic, see Benner 2018.

[24] Marx and Engels 1975, p. 88. It is interesting to note here that Bauer’s deployment of the German word Dorn (thorn) draws on the extensive use of this metaphor in nineteenth-century German literature. It is also telling that Theodor Adorno, whether knowingly or unknowingly, rehearses Marx’s witticism against Bauer, inferring in §29 of hisMinima Moralia, that ‘the splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass’ (Adorno, cited in Jay 2020, p. xi). Thanks to Meade McCloughan for bringing this important parallel to my attention.

[25]Bruno Bauer returned to the Jewish Question in his 1862 essay, Das Judenthum in der Fremde (The Jewish Diaspora), where he castigates Jews as ‘White Negroes’ and notes their inferior capacity for physical labour relative to their black relatives. See Bauer 1863, p. 10. For a more elaborate treatment of the racial element in Bauer’s later essay, see Rotenstreich 1959.

[26]For a more elaborate treatment of antisemitism and its projection of modern abstraction exclusively upon Jews, see Postone 2006.

[27] Marx and Engels 1975, p. 115.

[28] Ignatieff 2021, p. 142.

[29] Marx 1978b, p. 540.

[30]Marx 1972, p. 25.

[31]Marx 1975, pp. 109–10.

[32] Marx, 1975, p. 110.

[33] Marx 1985, p. 389.

[34]See Carlebach 1978.

[35] See Runes 1959.

[36] Marx 1978c, p. 143.

[37] Feuerbach 1957, p. 114.

[38]Marx 1978c, p. 143.

[39] Marx 1967, p. 79.

[40] It should be noted that Marx was not always hostile towards Lassalle, though this does not at all excuse his prejudiced attacks against him.

[41] McLellan 1973, p. 86. A similar interpretation is offered by Peled 1992.

[42]For a more global perspective on Jewish emancipation, see Sorkin 2019.

[43] Draper 1977, p. 608.

[44]Marx 1978a, p. 48.

[45]In this regard, Dennis Fischman correctly notes that ‘as readers we are entitled to ask why, if Marx meant only to criticize liberalism for neglecting the power of money, he saw fit to drag the Jews into the argument’ (Fischman 1991, p. 14).

[46] Traverso 2019, p.216.

[47]N.B. Hareth-el-yahoud actually translates as the ‘Jewish Quarter’.

[48] Marx 1980, pp. 107–8.

[49] Marx 1980, p. 108.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Nathan Weinstock, the erstwhile Trotskyist anti-Zionist, links the history of Jewish oppression in the Middle East to the Jews’ historically inferior dhimmi status; seeWeinstock 2014. While Weinstock’s research on this topic is far from exhaustive, it should not be dismissed out of hand without further scholarly inquiry and refutation.

[52] For a critical and vivid history of decolonisation that emphasises subaltern cosmopolitan orientations as forms of ‘worldmaking’, see Getachew 2019.

[53]In its report of 27 April 2021 regarding the treatment of Palestinians in Israel and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Human Rights Watch observed that ‘in certain areas, as described in this report, these deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution’ (Human Rights Watch 2021).

[54]See Traverso 2019, pp. 23–6.

[55]Engels 1990, p. 51.

[56] Engels 1990, pp. 51–2.

[57] Engels 1990, p. 51.

[58]Traverso 2019, p. 28.

[59] See Engels, 1985, p. 360.

[60] See Shtakser 2014, p. 31.

[61] McGeever 2020, p. 184. This conflation underscores just how dangerous the figural ‘Economic-Jewish Stereotype’ can be in revolutionary practice.

[62] Deutscher 2017, p. 70.

[63]Marx 1978d, p. 595.

[64] McGeever 2020, p. 214.

[65] Deutscher 2017, p. 67. Here it is important to avoid reading back into the Poale Zion, which was partly inspired by Ber Borochov’s ‘Marxist Zionism’, the theories and subsequent practices of Labour Zionism in British Mandate Palestine. Notwithstanding the shortcoming of Borochov’s theory of the ‘inverted pyramid’, the minority of his dissident followers in Mapam quickly became marginalised preciselybecause of their commitments to universalism in the form of collaboration between Jewish and Arab workers in Palestine. For a well-researched critical perspective on this issue, see Sternhell 1998, p. 19. Borochov, it should be noted, returned to Russia during the revolutionary upheaval in 1917 and died shortly thereafter.

[66] Churchill 1920.

[67] See Brent and Naumov 2003. The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC) was actively repressed by the Soviet regime in the aftermath of WWII because its members (most of whom were subsequently imprisoned, tortured, or executed) documented the specificity of antisemitic crimes on the territories of the Soviet Union during the Shoah and thus underscored the disproportionate reality of Jewish suffering at the hands of the Nazis and local collaborators. One should also note here important parallels with the notorious Prague show trials of 1952, in which eleven of the thirteen accused were Jews, who were variously denounced as ‘Trotskyite, Titoite, Zionist, and bourgeois-nationalist’ traitors.

[68]Deutscher 2017, p. 82.

[69] McGeever 2020, p. 210.

[70] For a recent examination of neighbour-on-neighbour violence on the eve of the Holocaust, see Kopstein and Wittenberg 2018.

[71] Achcar 2011, pp. 58–9.

[72] For the Canadian experience, see Abella and Troper 2012. After recounting the historical persecution of European (Ashkenazi) Jews, which culminated in the Shoah, Charles Mills observes that European Jews represent the clearest instance of ‘borderline’ Europeans, who are phenotypically white persons but whose political status as whites remains in question. When approaching contemporary antisemitism, it is crucial to remember that antisemites are, by definition, against extending Jews entry ‘into the inner sanctum of the racial club’ (Mills 1997, p. 80).

[73] Deutscher 2017, p. 136. Deutscher subsequently distinguishes between the nationalism of the oppressor and the nationalism of the oppressed. He cautions, however, that ‘even the nationalism of the exploited and oppressed should not be viewed uncritically, for there are various phases in its development; in one phase progressive aspirations prevail; in another reactionary tendencies come to the surface. From the moment that independence is won or nearly won, nationalism tends to shed its revolutionary aspect altogether and turns into a retrograde ideology’ (pp. 138–9). Cf. Fanon 2004, pp. 97–144.

[74]Awad and Bean 2020, pp. 15–38.

[75]Kolakowski 1968, p. 97.

[76] Achcar 2011, p. 290; Chomsky and Pappé 2015, pp. 51–2.

[77] For a well-researched critical discussion of Amin al-Husseini in this respect, see Achcar 2011, pp. 137–73. Husseini’s antisemitism cannot be denied, even if its sources were ‘religious’ in inspiration.

[78] I agree with Noaman Ali (2020) that one cannot make proper sense of the Jewish Question in the aftermath of 1948 without also confronting the interlocking Palestinian Question. However, great care should be taken to avoid dissolving one question into the other and thereby trivialising both.

[79]Sternhell 1998, 46. For recent perspectives on the relationship between Zionism and settler colonialism, see Peled 2017, pp. 103–22, as well as Khalidi 2020.

[80] Achcar 2011, p. 295.

[81] See Awad and Bean 2020, p. 6.

[82]Engels 1976, p. 389.

[83]Marx 1985, p. 89.

[84] Marx 1978b, pp. 530–31.

[85] Deutscher 2017, p. 51.

Franz Kafka and Antisemitism

The historical context of Der Prozess

Michael Löwy. Translated by Inez Hedges

At the end of the 19th Century and beginning of the 20th, a powerful wave of antisemitism ran throughout Europe, from Tzarist Russia to Republican France. Traditional religious anti-judaism combined here with new, more ‘modern’ manifestations, based on racial, ‘social’ or nationalist arguments. It took different forms: pogroms, mob riots, antisemitic discourses and publications, legal exclusion form territories or professions, antisemitic trials. It did not spare the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its Czech province, where antisemitism was to be found both among the Czech majority and the German-speaking minority. How did Franz Kafka, a Czech Jew of German culture, react to antisemitism?

Kafka’s relation to Judaism was highly ambiguous,  an ambiguity summarized in the famous comment of 1918 in his Octavo notebooks: ‘I . . . have not caught the hem of the Jewish prayer-mantle—now flying away from us—as the Zionists have.’[1] In a similar spirit, in a letter to Grete Bloch dated June 11, 1914, he describes himself as an asocial person, excluded from the community because of his ‘non-Zionist, non-practicing Judaism (I admire Zionism and am nauseated by it).’[2] Another well-known statement seems even more negative : ‘What do I have in common with the Jews ? I hardly have anything in common with myself, and I should stay quietly in a corner, happy to be able to breath.’[3]

On the other hand, he subscribed to the periodical published by his Zionist friends (Max Brod, Hugo Bergmann, Felix Weltsch), Selbstwehr (Self-defense) and even published there his pieceVor dem Gesetz. And, above all, he had a keen interest in the Eastern European Jewish culture, in the Yiddish language, on which he gave a talk in 1912, and on the Yiddish theatre: one of its actors, Ytzhak Löwy, became his friend.

In spite of his sympathy for the Ost-Juden, Kafka knew well enough that he was an assimilatedWest-Jude, with little links to the Jewish religious or cultural tradition. In a letter to Max Brod, from June 1921, he describes his generation of German-speaking Jewish writers in Prague as curious beings who ‘with their hind legs are glued to the Judaism of the fathers, while the front legs could not find a new soil’.[4]

This ambivalence, documented in many writings, did not prevent him from reacting very strongly to antisemitism: this was, in fact, a common reaction among many European Jews, whose uneasy Jewish identity was provoked, enhanced or awakened by antisemitic aggressions. As a jurist, Kafka was particularly affected by legal manifestations of state antisemitism:  the antisemitic trials of his time. As we will try to show, they make up the historical context for the famous novel Der Prozess.


This piece is being made available as a preprint edition of the double-volume Marxism and the Critique of Antisemitism special issue of Historical Materialism. Further additions will still be made before then. The final published version of this text will be made available on the Brill website in the coming months. We ask that citations refer to the Brill edition.All Illustrations are by Natalia Podpora.



Franz Kafka’s Trial, written in 1914–15, was published only many years after his death; just one section of it, the short parable ‘Before the Law’, appeared, as we mentioned, in the JournalSelbstwehr. Let us briefly recall the main episodes of the novel.

Joseph K is arrested one morning, apparently victim of a slander. The two policemen that arrest him refuse to give any explanation for this measure - which doesn’t take the form of a real imprisonment, but remains as a sort of menace suspended over his head, while he is permitted to continue his normal activities. He is judged by a Court that prevents any access to its Judges, and that does not recognize legal defence but only ‘tolerates’ it. This Court, whose hierarchy extends into the infinite (unendlich), and whose behaviour is unexplainable and unpredictable, pretends to be infallible; its proceedings remain secret and the bill of indictment is not accessible to the accused, nor to his lawyers, and even less to the public in general. The accused is therefore unable to defend himself, since he doesn’t know of what he is being accused…After this entirely untransparent proceeding, the Court sends a pair of henchmen to execute the unfortunate Joseph K.

The book became one of the most famous novels of the 20th century – as well as a remarkable film by Orson Welles – and has been the object of a huge amount of diverse and contradictory interpretations.

Some of them have a strong conformist bent. An obvious example are those readings of the novel that suppose Joseph K’s guilt and therefore the legitimacy of his condemnation. For instance, Erich Heller – whose writings on Kafka are far from being uninteresting - after a detailed discussion of the parable ‘Before the Law’ concludes : ‘there is one certainty that is left untouched by the parable as well as by the whole book : the Law exists,  and Joseph K must have most terribly offended it, for he is executed in the end with a double edged - yes, double edged – butcher’s knife that is thrust into his heart and turned there twice.’[5]  Applied to the events of the 20th century, this argument would lead to the following conclusion : if this or that person, or even a few million persons, are executed by the authorities, it is certainly because they must have most terribly offended the Law…In fact, nothing in the novel does not suggest that the poor Joseph K did ‘ terribly offend the Law ’ (which one ?) and even less that he deserved a death sentence !

Other readers, more attentive, acknowledge that there is nothing in the novel that suggests the main character’s guilt, but argue that in the chapters which Kafka did not have the time to write there would be, without doubt, ‘the explanation of Joseph K’s fault, or at least of the reasons for the trial’[6]. Well, one can speculate ad libidum on what Kafka would have written, or should have written, but in the manuscript as it exists, one of the strong ideas of the text is precisely the absence of any ‘explanation of the reasons for the trial’, as well as the obstinate refusal of all the concerned instances - policemen, magistrates, Courts, executioners - to give one.

All the attempts by various interpreters to make Joseph K. guilty of something inevitably hurt against the first phrase of the novel, which simply states: Jemand musste Joseph K verleumdet haben, denn ohne dass er etwas Böses getan hätte, wurde eines Morgens verhaftet - ‘Somebody must have slandered Josef K., since, without having done any evil, he was arrested one morning’.[7] It is important to observe that this phrase is not at all presented as the subjective opinion of the hero - such as he manifests in the several passages of the novel where he proclaims his innocence - but as an ‘objective’ information, as factual as the next phrase : ‘Mrs. Grubach’s cook (…) did not come this day’.[8]

What is common to all these sorts of exegetic efforts, is that they neutralize or erase the extraordinary critical dimension of the novel, whose central motive is, as Hannah Arendt understood so well, ‘the functioning of a cunning bureaucratic machine where the hero is innocently caught’.[9] Many readers were struck by the prophetic character of the novel; which seems to foresee, with its visionary imagination, the justice of the totalitarian states of the 20th century.  Bertolt Brecht was one of the first to propose such an interpretation, since 1937: ‘bourgeois democracies carry in their deepest interior the fascist dictatorship, and Kafka painted with a grandiose imagination what later became the concentration camps, the absence of any legal guarantee, the absolute autonomy of the state (...)’.[10] Could not the same argument apply, mutatis mutandis, to the Stalinist USSR? Once again it is Brecht – in spite of being a loyal fellow-traveller of the Communist movement - which says so, in a conversation with Walter Benjamin about Kafka, in 1934, i.e. even before the Moscow Trials: ‘Kafka had only one problem, that of organization. What seized him, is theAngst of the Ant-Hill-State, the way human beings alienate from themselves their forms of common life. And he predicted some of the manifestations of this alienation, like for instance the methods of the GPU.’  Brecht added: ‘One sees with the Gestapo what the Tcheka can become.’[11]           

Such a reading is a legitimate homage to the clear-sightedness of the Prague writer, who was able to grasp the tendencies, already hidden in his time as sinister virtualities, in the ‘constitutional’ European states. However, it offers us very little insight into his own motivations, and his sources of inspiration.

Moreover, these a posteriori references to so-called ‘states of exception’ (dictatorships, totalitarianism) might obscure one of the powerful ideas of the novel: the ‘exception’, i.e. the crushing of the individual by the State apparatuses, ignoring his rights, is the rule – I’m paraphrasing a formula from Walter Benjamin in his ThesesOn the concept of history (1940). In other words:The Trial deals with the alienated and oppressive nature of the modern States, including those who self-define themselves as ‘Lawful States’. This is why, in the first pages of the novel, it is clearly said - again, by the neutral voice of the narrator: ‘K. lived however in a Legal State (Rechtsstaat), peace reigned everywhere, all the Laws were in force, who dared to attack him at his home?’[12]  

It is not in an imaginary future but in contemporary historical events that one should look for the source of inspiration for The Trial. [13] Among these facts, the great antisemitic trials of his time were a blatant example of state injustice. The most (in)famous were the Tisza trial (Hungary 1882), the Dreyfus trial (France 1894–99), the Hilsner trial (Czechoslovaquia, 1899–1900) and the Beiliss trial (Russia, 1912-13). In spite of the differences between the various State regimes – absolutism, constitutional monarchy, republic – the judicial system condemned, sometimes to capital punishment, innocent victims whose only crime was to be Jews.

The Tisza affair was a trial for ‘ritual murder’ against fifteen people from a small Jewish community in a village in Northern Hungary (1882–83), accused of killing a young Gentile women, Esther Solymosi, and collecting her blood at the synagogue in order to prepare their unleavened Easter bread (matzos). Of course, the tragic event could not have touched Kafka directly, since he was born in 1883. But he certainly was aware of it, through various journalistic or literary sources. The strong feelings he felt about it appear in a striking form in a letter from October 1916 to hisfiancée Felice Bauer, which contains a moving reference to a theatrical drama,Ritual Murder in Hungary (Berlin 1914), by the Jewish German writer Arnold Zweig, dealing with the Tisza trial: ‘The other day I’ve read ‘Ritual Murder in Hungary’ (Ritualmord in Ungarn) by Zweig; its supernatural scenes are as feeble as I would have expected from what I know of Zweig’s work. The terrestrial scenes on the other hand are intensely alive, taken no doubts from the excellent records of the case. Nevertheless, one cannot quite distinguish between the two worlds; he has identified himself with the case and is now under its spell. I no longer see him the way I used to. At one point I had to stop reading, sit down on the sofa and weep aloud. It’s years since I wept’.[14] Since this is one of the few – perhaps the only ! – mention of weeping in Kafka’s Correspondence or Diaries, it is obvious that he was deeply moved by the story of this ugly antisemitic trial, where a Jewish boy, Mortiz Scharf, aged 13, was pushed to testify against his father and the Jewish community. The reference to the ‘excellent records’ of the trial suggests that Kafka had read this material before he discovered Arnold Zweig’s piece; very likely, he had already some information on the Tisza affair when he started, in 1914, to write Der Prozess.

Paradoxically, the most (in)famous antisemitic affair of his time, the Dreyfus trial, is hardly mentioned in his writings. For instance, the name of Alfred Dreyfus does not appear one single time in his Diaries. In fact, we do not know what he thought of it, even if one can be sure that, as all Jewish or even European citizen from this generation, he knew the main episodes of this traumatic event.  This is a surprising lack of interest, which still needs to be explained. Some authors pretend that Dreyfus was of utmost importance for him, but this does not seem a very persuasive argument. For instance, according to Frederick Karl, the Dreyfus trial is ‘the archetypal court case in the background of The Trial’[15],  but there is little evidence to substantiate this assessment. There is even less for Sander Gilman’s statement that ‘the Dreyfus Affair haunted Kafka all his adult life’ as well as his attempt to identify Kafka’s Penal Colony with the Devil’s Island were Alfred Dreyfus was interned after his condemnation.[16]

One of the few mentions to Dreyfus appears, rather in an indirect way, in a letter from 1922 to Max Brod. Kafka refers to the cultural struggle around a controversial Czech sculptor, Frantisek Bilek, which he then compares to a similar controversy around the Cezch composer Leos Janacek. According to Kafka, Brod‘s defense of Bilek is : ‘a fight comparable with the fight for Janacek; if I understand the matter rightly (I almost wrote : with the fight for Dreyfus)’.[17] Hardly a powerful statement about the Dreyfus affair, assimilated to an aesthetic controversy…  But one can accept the hypothesis that, to a lesser extent than other antisemitic trials, the one against the French Jewish captain was among Kafka’s sources of inspiration for the novel.

Much stronger was his reaction to the Czech Hilsner trial, for the obvious reason that it took place in his own country. In spite of his young age in 1899 (sixteen years), Kafka immediately grasped the threatening significance of this affair.  In this year a young Czech Jew, Leopold Hilsner, living in the town of Polna, was accused of ‘ritual murder’ against a young Christian woman, Agnes Hurza, in order to use her blood for the Jewish Passover rituals.  Found guilty, in spite the absence of any evidence, Hilsner was condemned to capital punishment and only escaped death thanks to the campaign in his defence waged by the democratic politician Thomas Masaryk (future President of the Czech Republic); following a revision of the trial he was ‘only’ sentenced to life.[18]

In a conversation reported by Gustav Janouch, Kafka mentioned his discussions on this episode with his friend and school-mate Hugo Bergmann, as the starting point of his consciousness of the Jewish condition: ‘a despised individual, considered by the surrounding world as a stranger, only tolerated’[19] – in other words, a pariah...

We know that Janouch notes are not always reliable, but we have, in Kafka’s correspondence with Milena, a direct reference to the Hilsner affair, as a paradigmatic example of the irrationality of antisemitic prejudices: ‘I cannot understand how people (…) came to this idea of ritual murder’; in a sort of phantasmagorical scenario, ‘one sees ‘Hilsner’ commit his crime step by step’.  In this correspondence with his friend and lover, there are several other references to antisemitism, an ideology where all Jews ‘take the form of Negros’ and make up a lower race, the ‘scum of the earth’.[20]

Finally, it is very likely that Kafka was also deeply touched by the trial against the Russian Jewish shoe-maker Mendel Beiliss (Kiev, 1911- 1913), equally accused of ‘ritual murder’ – a trial followed by a violent antisemitic campaign in the press and antisemitic riots in Kiev. The Zionist periodical Selbstwehr, to which he subscribed, was obsessed with this affair, which showed, in a striking way, the dramatic condition of the Jews in the Russian Tzarist Empire: their absence of rights, their social exclusion, their persecution by the State. For instance, an editorial under the title ‘Kiew’, from April 12, 1912, asserts: as at the time of the Dreyfus trial, also now, in Kiev, ‘all the Jews of the world feel that they are on the bank of the accused’ together with Beiliss. The condemnation of Mendel Beiliss would be the sign ‘to launch a legalised storm against the Jews’ in Russia. By the summer of 1913 the trial had become so notorious in the pages ofSelbstwehr that the name of the accused was often deleted and the affair was simply called ‘Der Prozess’…[21]

We know that among Kafka’s papers which he asked to be burned by his friend Dora Diamant just before his death, there was a narrative about Mendel Beiliss.[22] This was perhaps the trial that most directly influenced Der Prozess, since he took place only one year before Kafka started to write it.

This role of the antisemitic trials as a source for the novel is only an hypothesis. But it is a plausible one, considering also that, since 1911, after his meeting with the Yiddish Theater and his friendship with the actor Itzhak Löwy, Kafka became increasingly interested in Judaïsm, and started to send some of his writings to Jewish periodicals such as the above-mentioned Selbstwehr orDer Jude, Martin Buber’s Journal.

However, there is nothing, in the novel, that betrays a direct connexion to the antisemitic trials.  It is true that Joseph K’s arrest seems to be the result of a ‘slander’ – a term which seems to have some analogy to the accusations of ‘ritual murder’. However, the issue of the slander is not pursued in the novel. In fact, there are no references to Jews and/or antisemitism in theThe Trial, neither directly nor indirectly. The main character, Joseph K, has little in common with either the captain Dreyfus, or Hilsner, the Scharf family of Tisza and Mendel Beiliss. Whatis common between the antisemitic trials and the novel is a certain pattern of absurd and injust ‘legal’ procedure, and the crushing of the innocent individual under the wheels of the State machine. In other words: if Franz Kafka was deeply concerned about the antisemitic trials, he did not react to them only as Jew but also as a universal spirit, whodiscovers in the Jewish experience the quintessence of the human experience in modern times. This is why inDer Prozess the main character, Joseph K., has no nationality nor religion: the choice of a simple initial instead of a name – K and not Kohn or Kreuzer – is a strong signifier of this universal identity. Joseph K could be any one of the inumerable victims of the State’s legal apparatus.[23]

In this universalist re-interpretation of the antisemitic trials, Kafka’s sympathy for the libertarian socialist ideas has probably played a certain role.  As it is known, thanks to several witnesses - Michal Mares, Michal Kacha, Gustav Janouch, among others – Kafka took part in several meetings of Prague anarchist circles, during the years 1909-1912.[24]  Now, the issue of ‘State injustice’ occupied an important place in the libertarian culture, which celebrates, every year, on May the First, the memory of the ‘Chicago Martyrs’, the anarcho-syndicalist leaders executed in 1887 under false accusations.  In 1909, another ‘affair’ provoked the indignation of anarchist - and of broader progressive - circles around the whole world : the condamnation to capital punishment and the execution by the Spanish Monarchy  of Francisco Ferrer, an eminent libertarian pedagogue, founder of the Spanish Modern School, falsely accused of having inspired an anarcho-syndicalist uprising in Barcelona.  According to the Czech anarchist poet Michal Marès, Kafka took part in 1909 at a Prague demonstration in protest against Ferrer’s execution.

Unlike the victims of the antisemitic trial, which were either acquitted (Dreyfus, the Tisza-Jews, Beiliss) or at least escaped capital punishment (Hilsner), Francisco Ferrer was ‘legally’ executed, and thus has a significant common trait with Joseph K.  But otherwise, there isn’t much similarity between their stories…

How to resist the murderous machinery of State justice?  For Kafka’s Zionist friends, the Jewish pariahs should organize their self-defence – Selbstwehr – against antisemitism, a first step towards a newfound dignity. For his Czech anarchist friends, the only defence would be the direct action of the oppressed against the powers that be. Kafka probably sympathized with both; but what he shows in his novel is less optimistic and more ‘realist’: the defeat and the resignation of the victim.

Joseph K’s first reaction to the threat is resistance, (individual) rebellion: he denounces, protests and voices, with sarcasm and irony, his contempt for the Institution that is supposed to judge him. He tends also to under-estimate the danger.  The characters to whom he asks for help advise him to submit: ‘There is no way to struggle against the Court, one his forced to confess.  You should therefore confess (das Geständnis machen) at the next occasion’, explains to him Leni, the Lawyer’s servant ; the Lawyer himself tells K that he should ‘resign himself (abzufinden) to the situation as it is’ and not move: ‘Above all don’t draw any attention ! Keep quiet even if this seems a non-sense!’[25] Joseph K. refuses this ‘friendly’ advice, he has only contempt for this submissive and servile characters, described as ‘dog-like’.

The dog, in several of Kafka’s novels is the allegorical figure of voluntary servitude, of the behaviour of those who lie at the feet of their hierarchical superiors and blindly obey to their master’s voice. For instance, in The Trial, the Lawyer Huld ‘humiliates himself in a doglike way (hündische weise) in front of the Court’. At a hierarchical lower rung, the merchant Block kneels at the feet of Huld and behaves in a despicable servile manner: ‘He was no more a client, he was the dog of the Lawyer. If Huld would have asked him to crawl under the bed like in a kennel and bark, he would have done it with joy’.[26]  Joseph K, on the contrary, keeps his dignity and refuses to submit to those ‘above’.

However, in the last chapter of the novel, his behaviour changes radically. After a brief attempts at resistence to the henchmen – ‘I will go no further’ – he decides that any opposition is ‘useless’ and behaves towards his executioners in an obliging way (Entgegenkommen),  in ‘perfect acceptance’ (vollem Einverständnis) of their aims. He is not only resigned to his fate, but seems willing to cooperate actively to his own punishment. It is only by lack of strength that he doesn’t accomplish what he considers to be his duty: take the weapon in his own hands and execute himself. However, at the moment when the executioners plunge the knife into his heart, he is still able to articulate, before dying: ‘as a dog!’ (Wie ein Hund !).  The last phrase of the novel is a commentary: ‘It is as if the shame would survive him’.[27]  

Which shame? Obviously the shame of dying ‘like a dog’, i.e. in a submissive way, in a state of voluntary servitude – in the sense given by Etienne de La Boétie to this word.          

The conclusion of the novel is both pessimistic and resolutely non-conformist. It conveys Kafka’s rebel Jewish consciousness, combining compassion for the victim and a critique of its voluntary servitude. One can read this last sentence as an appeal for resistance against antisemitism and all other forms of legal injustice...[28]

[1] Franz Kafka, ‘The Eight Octavo Notebooks,’ in Wedding Preparations, 114

[2]  Franz Kafka, ‘Letter to Grete Bloch, June 11, 1914,’ in Letters to Felice, 423

[3]  F.Kafka, Journal, (January 8, 1914), Paris, Grasset, 1954, p. 321.

[4] Franz Kafka, Briefe 1902-1924, Frankfurt am Main, Fischer Verlag, 1975, p. 337

[5] Erich Heller, Franz Kafka, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1982, pp. 79-80

[6] Casten Schlingmann, Franz Kafka, Stuttgart, Reclam, 1995, p. 44

[7] F.Kafka,  Der Prozess, Frankfort, Fischer, 1985, p. 7. All translations from The Trial are mine ML.

[8]Ibid. .  By proclaming, thoughout the novel, his innocence, Joseph K is not lying, but expressing an intimate conviction. This is the reason why, at the moment the policemen appear to arrest him, he thinks of a practical joke organized by his office colleagues.  This is obviously the reaction of some one who is at peace with his consciencousness…

[9] H. Arendt, ‘F.Kafka’, in Sechs Essays p.128

[10] B.Brecht,  ‘Sur la litterature tchécoslovaque moderne’, 1937, in Le siècle de Kafka, Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou, 1984, p.162. In an essay published in 1974, J.P. Stern proposes an interesting - but somewhat forced - comparison between Kafka’s Trial and the legal procedures of the Third Reich Courts. (J.P. Stern, ‘The Law of the Trial’, in F.Kuna, On Kafka : Semi-centenary Perspectives, New York, Harper & Row, 1976).

[11] Quoted in W.Benjamin, Essais sur Brecht, Paris, Maspero, 1969, p.132, 136. Tcheka and GPU were different names of the Soviet political police. According to Brecht, in the same conversation, ‘Kafka’s perspective is that of the human being who fell under the wheels’ of power.  

[12] F.Kafka, Der Prozess, p. 9.

[13] I entirely agree with Rosemarie Ferenczi’s argument, in her outstanding book,  Kafka. Subjectivité, Histoire et Structures, Paris, Klincksiek, 1975. Cf.  p. 62 : ‘Kafka did not pretend to be the prophet of future catastrophes, he limited himself to decipher the evil of his times.. If his descriptions appear effectively as prophetic, this is because the future epochs are the logical following of Kafak’s own’.

[14] F.Kafka, Letters to Felice, ed. Erich Heller and Jürgen Born, trans. James Stern and Elisabeth Duckworth, New York, Schocken Books, 1973 ; p. 530. See the chapter  Kafka wept in Sander Gilman, Franz Kafka. The Jewish Patient, Londres, Routledge, 1995.

[15] Frederick Karl, Franz Kafka, Representative Man, Boston, 1993,  p. 501.

[16] Sander Gilman, Franz Kafka, The Jewish Patient pp. 69-70, 81.

[17] F.Kafka, Briefe 1902-1924, Frankfurt/Main, Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1975, p. 402.

[18] For a detailed account of the affair, see Maximilian Paul Schiff, Der Prozess Hilsner, Aktenauszug, Wien, 1908 and Der Fall Hilsner, ein europäisches Justitzverbrechen, Berlin, A.W. Hayn’s Erben, 1911.  See also Rosemarie Ferenczi, Op.cit.  pp. 46-58.

[19] G.Janouch, Kafka und seine Welt, Vienne, Verlag Hans Deutsch, 1965, p.55.

[20] Kafka, Lettres à Milena, Paris, Gallimard, 1988, trad. A.Vialatte, pp.66, 164, 255.

[21] See Arnold J. Band, ‘Kafka and the Beiliss Affair’, Comparative Literature, vol. 32, n. 2, Spring 1980, pp. 176-177.  Beiliss was finally acquitted by the jury.

[22] Max Brod, Franz Kafka : eine Biographie, Frankfurt am Main, S.Fischer, 1954, p.248.  Brod mentions a testimony by Dora Dymant, Kafka last companion : ‘Among the papers burned there was, according to Dora, a narrative by Kafka on the ritual murder trial against Beiliss in Odessa’.

[23] According to Rosemarie Ferenczi, the Hilsner affair,  manipulated by the State, teached Kafka, beyond the limits of the Jewish reality, how far could go the ‘ arbitrary behaviour of a unscrupulous power ’. (Kafka, subjectivité, histoire et structures, p. 61).  See also p. 205 : ‘The Trial is an indictment against the History of his times which made possible affairs as Hilsner’s’.

[24] On this issue, I refer to my own book, Franz Kafka, rebellious dreamer , Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2016.

[25] Kafka , Der Prozess, Frankfort, Fischer, 1985,  pp. 94, 104.

[26] Kafka, Der Prozess, pp. 152, 166.

[27] Kafka, Der Prozess, pp.191-194.

[28] Peter Handke has an interesting comment on this : ‘There is not in the writings of the peoples since their origins another text that can so much help the oppressed to resist with dignity and indignation against an order of the world that revealed itself as their mortal ennemy, as this end of the novel The Trial, where Joseph K is carried to be slaughtered and accelerates himself his execution (...).’ (P. Handke, ‘ Discours de réception du prix Kafka’, 1979, in Le siècle de Kafka, Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou, 1984, p.248).

The French Debate on Zur Judenfrage

From an Anachronistic Trial to the Crisis of Secularism

Jean-Pierre Couture

While arguments about the ‘antisemitic’ character of Marx have been well rehearsed in the English-speaking world,[1][2]this debate has been particularly lively and revived in the French context since the Six-Day War and well into the Twenty-first Century. On each occasion, intellectuals dispute the correct interpretation of Marx’s 1844 article published in response to the theses of Bruno Bauer, hence the often-misreported title: Zur Judenfrage (On the Jewish Question).[3]Among Jewish intellectuals, who are at the forefront of this debate, the relation to Marxism in toto is coupled with their specific positioning towards the State of Israel and Jewish identity.

Our article traces the multiple shifts in meaning assigned to Marx’s text throughout these debates by contextualising them within the broader political controversies of post-war and contemporary France. If ‘every generation rewrites Marx in a new way,’[4] then this article shows that such rewriting necessarily takes shape within an intellectual and political struggle that not only clarifies the positions present, but itself proves to be the driving force of the shifts in meaning within competing ideologies. In short, we demonstrate that claims about Marx’s supposed ‘antisemitism’ emerge out of politicised, anti-Marxist, and right-wing Zionist readings, against which an historicised reading of Marx is made necessary.

To conduct this critical inquiry, the article is split into two sections. First, it examines the French debate over ‘Marx’s antisemitism’ in detail, which serves a double function: to elucidate the context and reasons for opposition between French intellectuals regarding this trial and to extend our knowledge of which evidence must be considered to indict or exonerate Marx. While this lengthy historical overview may break the interpretation of Marx’s work into several pieces, it nonetheless allows us to comprehensively collect and assess all of the counter-arguments thrown at a politically-inspired and anachronical accusation. Second, it briefly sketches an argument for a better, more historicised criticism of Marx’s thinking on the Jewish question by working through a problem which haunts the young Marx’s mechanistic view of assimilation: namely, the flaws involved in his materialistic desecration of religious views that are brought to light by the contemporary crisis of secularism and the proliferation of racialised intolerance, especially against Muslims.


This piece is being made available as a preprint edition of the double-volume Marxism and the Critique of Antisemitism special issue of Historical Materialism. Further additions will still be made before then. The final published version of this text will be made available on the Brill website in the coming months. We ask that citations refer to the Brill edition. All Illustrations are by Natalia Podpora.


The Anachronistic Trial over Marx’s ‘antisemitism’

The problem: Profaning Bauer’s Theology and the Religious Jew

Let us recall that what paves the way for Marx's trial concerns a few sentences taken from the second part of his article.[5] Indeed, Marx launches out in a kind of brutal exercise of ‘profanation’ of the religious Jew, which many commentators have avoided addressing directly.[6] While seeking ‘to escape from the [Bauerian] theological formulation of the question,’[7] he borrows from the imagery of Jewish selfishness conveyed by Hegel and Feuerbach and uses radicalised formulas which reduce religion to its socio-economic function: in effect, reducing the sacred to the profane. ‘What is the profane basis of Judaism? Practical need,self-interest. What is the worldly cult of the Jew?Huckstering [Der Schacher]. What is his worldly god?Money’.[8] A few paragraphs later Marx adds: ‘Money is the jealous god of Israel, beside which no other god may exist.’[9] Left to their own devices, these sentences obviously nourish the most tenacious medieval prejudices about the figure of the Jew indulging in illicit trade and the cold calculation of interests.

This problem becomes more complex since the second part of Marx’s article proposes a mechanistic or assimilationist solution to the Jewish question. This causal mechanism has two inseparable components. In the first place, Marx dissolves practical Judaism into the generalised ethos ‘of the trader, and above all of the financier,’[10] into ‘the perfection of civil society,’ and into ‘the sway of egoistic need…namely money.’[11] He claims that the specificity of commerce traditionally vested in the Jew has spread to bourgeois society, thus echoing an analysis of money and its ability to alienate objects, including individuals, believed to have a practical origin in Judaism. We will see below that Marx is not at the origin of this reductive idea. However, this first step – mechanically posing Judaism as equivalent to the bourgeois egoism of civil society – consequently implies an equally mechanical solution.

If the basis of religion is necessarily profane, the abolition of a profane practice entails, in the second place, the abolition (Aufhebung) of the corresponding religious need. For Marx, achieving emancipation insofar as it is onlypolitical still maintains the split life of the citizen and the believer, which Bauer naively believes to be abolished by the suppression of religion. Thus, Marx seeks ahuman emancipation that abolishes this division itself and, consequently, implies the disappearance of Judaism.

While arguing in favour of this assimilationist option, the Judeophobic commonplaces that Marx inserts in his ‘profanation’ of religious Jews appear to loosely align him with nineteenth-century French socialists, such as Fourier, Toussenel, and Proudhon. Any reader showing antisemitic leanings could easily find in these few sentences a validation of their views, including among the late twentieth-century Holocaust deniers in France, such as Robert Faurisson, Roger Garaudy, and Pierre Guillaume. The same applies to any anti-Marxist reader who wishes to infer from these sentences alone a complete disqualification of Marx’s argument on the Jewish question (if not of Marx’s ideas on human emancipation entirely).

After World War II, this ‘profane perspective’ has regularly been labelled as ‘antisemitic’,[12] and the French intellectual context seems to give this accusation a renewable and recurring character. The virulence of this debate in France is so strong that it should be made clear from the outset that there is no code of ethics governing the field of rhetorical and political strategy. Nevertheless, following certain precautions allows us to approach the debate from a balanced position, the first of which involves asking the following questions: are notions of religious anti-Judaism or Judeophobia the same as antisemitism? Do they call for the same diagnosis and the same resolution? In his recent biography of the young Marx, Michael Heinrich distinguishes these terms:

In the case of anti-Judaism, a person’s Jewishness ends with their conversion to Christianity. Ethnic and national anti-Semitism regards converted Jews with considerable distrust; one is not sure whether converted Jews have really made a turn toward the cultural and religious community of a nation, but the possibility is fundamentally recognized. For racist anti-Semitism, conversion and cultural assimilation is irrelevant, since it assumes that supposed racial characteristics cannot be shed.[13]

Quite concretely, this typology explains why Marx’s father was able to overcome, around 1818, the anti-Judaism of his time by converting to Protestantism,[14] while on the other hand Walter Benjamin escaped racist antisemitism in 1940 only through suicide.

This elementary caution in the use of terms is not generally observed in the French debate. But even if militant or political reason often drive interpretations, we argue that the evidence produced by the various contributions to this 50-year-old debate, stretching from the Six-Day War to the recent publication of the Grande Édition Marx et Engels (GEME), tends to demonstrate the anachronism of the accusation of ‘antisemitism’ levelled against Marx.

Before reviewing the debate, let us also note that antisemitism has had several lives in France and that its presumed collusion with Marxism is the result of a change in the meaning of what is considered ‘antisemitic’ after the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. In post-war France, antisemitism was not only delegitimised, but it even seemed to be eradicated. ‘Morally, philosophically, [and] religiously, traditional antisemitism suffered irreparable blows after the war.’[15] From its existentialist premises, Sartre condemned antisemitism as a cowardly passion that invents itself a scapegoat – the Jew – in order to avoid responsibility for one’s own situation as a free and indeterminate human being.[16] The Shoah delegitimised antisemitism to its roots and bound both Christian and secular Europeans, accustomed to stigmatising the ‘Jewish deicide’, in the same guilt. Moreover, ‘the Shoah will have become not only the mental and psychic matrix of the Jews after World War II, but also the ultimate “proof” in favour of the historical necessity [of the Jewish nation-state].’[17] This necessity appeared obvious in 1948, when the Zionist project was devoted to the construction of a new secular, socialist democracy.[18] These several post-war developments earned Zionism strong support from the French left and put antisemitism on hold for a period of some twenty years.

The revival of Marx’s article after the Six-Day War

The first French scholarly translation of Zur Judenfrage by Jules Molitor was published in 1927 by Édition Costes.[19] Forty years after this initial publication, and twenty years after the birth of the State of Israel, ‘a disturbing news – the revival of French antisemitism since the Six-Day War in June 1967 – [had] prompted those responsible for 10/18 [a paperback publisher] to re-edit the little-known work of the young Karl Marx.’[20] Indeed, France fiercely debated the 1967 war and Israeli annexations, while President De Gaulle’s remarks on the Jews as ‘an elite people, sure of themselves and domineering,’[21] also fuelled a broad controversy against Israel. ‘The Jews of France went through a deep identity crisis during this period: publicly affirming effective solidarity with the Hebrew state, they were very marked by the hostile policy of the French government towards Israel.’[22] So much so, in fact, that the Chief Rabbi of France, Jacob Kaplan, protested and expressed ‘the deep emotion felt by all of Judaism in the presence of the theses presented by President [De Gaulle].’[23] Ben Gurion, former Prime Minister of Israel, also relayed his concerns to the French President,[24] while Raymond Aron broke the ‘silence des intellectuels’ and attacked De Gaulle, accusing him of opening ‘a new period of Jewish history and perhaps of antisemitism.’[25]

The new face of annexationist Zionism, which marginalised the Israeli left and the self-governing socialist experiment of the kibbutz, effected a shift in what Zionism could mean. According to the retrospective opinion of the French historian François Azouvi, the antisemitic passion described by Sartre would have been deprived of its justifications and would have slumbered ‘until the Six-Day War enabled a Third Worldist left to furbish a newlegitimacy to its antisemitism: anti-Zionism.’[26] This possible collusion between post-1967 anti-Zionism, the left, and the revival of French antisemitism fuelled in turn the controversy surrounding the young Marx’s article.

In this incendiary context, the Union générale d’éditions (UGE) put into circulation a new translation of Zur Judenfrage by Jean-Michel Palmier, along with the very first French translation of Bauer’s 1843 book.[27] Robert Mandrou wrote the short introduction to this paperback edition, using it to take a stand against ‘the critics of Marxism who pity the antisemitic Jew.’[28] To cut this accusation short, Mandrou minimises ‘the apparently contemptuous formulas’ or ‘terms of derision’ used in the second part of Zur Judenfrage. For him, only the malice of readers in a hurry can explain the distortion of Marx’s text when read in light of the ‘contemporary antisemitism [which] took shape at the turn of the [Twentieth] century’.[29]

This clarification surrounding the anachronism of antisemitic accusations against Marx was not deepened at this point, although the re-publication of the young Marxs piece in 1968, quickly followed by Marianna Simon’s translation (with introduction by François Châtelet) in 1971,[30] were undertaken with the aim of dissipating these various conceptual misunderstandings. That goal, however, was never achieved. Rather, Mandrou and Châtelet’s attenuations provided an occasion for a counter-exaggeration, that of an entirely antisemitic Marx posited by Robert Misrahi in 1972.

The ‘antisemitic’ Marx: from accusation to cross-examination

Born in Paris of Jewish parents, a contributor to Les Temps Modernes, and professor of philosophy at Sorbonne, Misrahi filled Marx’s anti-Jewish passages with speculative comments in Marx et la question juive (1972).According to Misrahi, Marx would have avoided slipping into such ‘antisemitism’ had he considered the possibility of a national solution to the Jewish question [which] existed in the Jewish and non-Jewish consciousness of Europe in the 1840s.[31] Against all historical cautionabout the limited space that even proto-Zionism would have had in the political spectrumof the early-nineteenth century, Misrahi goes further and reveals the heart of his anachronistic grievance towards Marx:

If he had mentioned the Zionist solution, he would have been forced to adopt it by the very logic of his system: to suppress the Jews is also to bring them together and bring them back to Israel. Mankind would have been emancipated from the Jews, and the Jews, emancipated from oppression.[32]

This sentence characterises Misrahi’s overall argument as well as the more general position of Marx’s accusers. On the one hand, he confuses the abolition (Aufhebung) of Judaism withthe suppression of the Jews, which is nowhere to be found in Marxs text yet clearly corresponds to the lexicon of racist antisemitism to which Marx is mixed up. On the other hand, Misrahi posits that Marx’s sin would have been avoided had he been a Zionist and a supporter of the Jewish nation instead of being critical of the state and nationalism. In short, to avoid accusations of antisemitism Marx would have had to not be Marx.

However, in arriving at these criticisms and accusations the broader position that Marx stood for was not adequately reported. For example, Misrahi partially quotes Marx’s March 13th, 1843 letter to Arnold Ruge:The Israelite religion inspires me with repulsion.[33] When placed in context, however, Marx’s position displays an entirely different perspective:

I have just been visited by the chief of the Jewish community here [in Cologne], who has asked me for a petition for the Jews to the Provincial Assembly, and I am willing to do it. However much I dislike the Jewish faith, Bauer’s view seems to me too abstract. The thing is to make as many breaches as possible in the Christian state and to smuggle in as much as we can of what is rational. At least, it must be attempted – and the embitterment grows with every petition that is rejected with protestations.[34]

Misrahi’s omission removes one of the few pieces of evidence of Marx’s clear support for Jewish emancipation in the wake of his own father’s commitment.[35] It conceals his analytical intention, which will have been sketched out in the 1844 article: to submit to an equal critique Bauer and his abstractions, the Jewish and Christian religions, and the PrussianState.

For the philosopher Elisabeth de Fontenay, a disciple of Louis Althusser in the 1970s and later a supporter of Zionism, this partial and partisan reading of Marx is due to the ‘hesitations of rigor’ on the part of the ‘antisemitic Marx’ camp. In her work, Les figures juives de Marx (1973), De Fontenay never mentions Misrahi but her contribution as a whole clearly aims to fill his silences and especially the ‘historical falsifications’ of any ‘reader-judge’ (lecteur-juge)[36] such as himself. Of Jewish descent through her mother, De Fontenay rejects the thesis ‘of a transhistorical ever reborn antisemitism,’[37] and seeks instead to historicise ‘the multiple anti-Jewish campaigns according to their irreducible forms’ and ‘to consider as decisive the date on which texts are drafted.’[38] To thwart the accusations of the anti-Marxists, De Fontenay reduces the violence of Marx’s lexicon to a ‘sole methodological dimension’ and favours a softened translation by speaking of the ‘Juif du change.[39] Nonetheless, the true strength of the work lies in De Fontenay’s restoration, development, and refinement of Marx’s argument in the Manuscripts of 1844, theTheses on Feuerbach, andThe Holy Family. It is also worth noting that the author produced a major piece of evidence against Marx’s accusers by appending to her book the first French translation of Moses Hess’Essence of Money.

The figure of Hess is a focal point in this debate. By drawing attention to this text, De Fontenay unmasked one of the strategies used by Misrahi for clearing Hess of the accusations set against Marx. Let us recall that Moses Hess (1812-1875) had a decisive influence on Marx and Engels’ adherence to communism and that he co-authored with them at least one section of the initial versions of The German Ideology. A few months before the forthcoming issue of theDeutsch-französische Jahrbücher, Hess placed in Marx’s hands his manuscript entitledEssence of Money [Über das Geldwesen], in which the brutal match between Jew and money is a leitmotiv.[40]

Misrahi reports these facts in a curious way – that is to say, without reporting them. He states: ‘To the articles of the Jew Moses Hess against money, property and the State, in 1843, answers the article of the liberal Protestant Karl Marx, son of a converted Jew and himself converted against the Jews and their religion of money.’[41] In this sentence, Marx is no longer only a Jew or a socialist; he becomes the author of theses which are in fact attributable to Hess himself. The attention to detail in portraying Hess’ political thought and his friendship with Marx is meticulous, except in the mention of the text submitted for publication in Marx and Ruge’s journal. Misrahi’s omission stands up to his polemical task, as Hess’ text is indeed a violent charge against Jews found guilty of the development of selfishness in mankind. Hess even speculates on the Hebrew etymology of the words blood (dam) and money (damim) and constantly alludes to cannibalism – i.e., the alleged link between human sacrifice and monetary punishment in Judaism.[42] The series of appalling passages which fill this anti-Judaic and Judeophobic article exceed in number and violence the statements endorsed by Marx:

Just as the animal tastes in blood only his own life in an animal-like, brutal way, so man tastes in money his own life in a brutal, animal-like, cannibalistic way. Money is the social blood, but externalised, spilt blood. The Jews had the world-historic mission in the natural history of the social animal world of developing the beast of prey out of man; they have finally fulfilled their mission. The mystery of Judaism and Christianity has been made public in the modern Jewish-Christian world of shopkeepers… In face of money, kings… have they only the right, like the other animal-men, arising from common natural right, from their common quality of beasts of prey, bloodsuckers, Jews, money-wolves… Money is the life-killing means of intercourse which has solidified into a dead letter just as the letter is the spirit-killing means of intercourse which has solidified into dead money. The invention of money and letters is attributed to the Phoenicians, the same people to whom is also attributed the invention of the Jewish God.[43]

Why does Misrahi not refer to these passages? Wouldn’t they be just as worthy of charges of ‘antisemitism’ from a ‘self-hating’ Jew as Marx’s writings? Are not these passages even more aggravated by the fact that Hess received, unlike Marx, a religious Jewish education and that these views on Judaism in 1843 cannot be explained by sheer ignorance or prejudice? This double standard is no secret, however, as Misrahi and most anti-Marxist Zionists see in Moses Hess the very model of the path to be taken from socialism to Zionism. By publishing Rome and Jerusalem in 1862, Hess pioneered modern Jewish nationalism with ‘one of the first major Zionist works’ which ‘advocates the resurrection of Palestine [sic] by a Jewish population.’[44] In a strange reversal, Hess’ later text is seen as the precursor of an idea (i.e., ‘to prefer [Jewish] nationality and to sacrifice to it an emancipation which would be illusory’)[45] that, according to Misrahi, the young Marx would have to have known and promoted before Hess. In fact, even before the rise of ethnic and national antisemitism, against which Hess rose in the 1860s and upon which he relied to criticise the assimilation of German Jews, Marx should have anticipated these developments and also refused ‘the possibility of emancipation through assimilation.’[46] In short, to use a contemporary label, Hess is portrayed as offering the correct version of a Jewish identity politics. Having become a Zionist, he has therefore taken the ‘right path’ since his anti-Jewish writings of the 1840s. This is enough to spare him a close examination of his pre-conversion writings, which is why Essence of Money is carefully ignored.

But Marx also traces his own path, and this very quickly in the short interval between 1843-1845. If his alleged ‘antisemitism’ were a key to understanding his work, then the Jewish figure should have continued to play a role, with all its weight, in his arguments. Rather, De Fontenay shows that Marx quickly detached himself from the Hessian phrases he reverberated in his 1844 article. Drawing on György Lukács, she argues that Hess’ moralising criticism of money could only be both ‘stuck in repetition and derailed in anti-Judaism.’[47] To get out of this dead end, Marx gradually avoids the language of Essence of Money. Hess’ chain of logic leading fromblood - money - egoism - Jews - bourgeois society becomes, for Marx,money - egoism - Jews - bourgeois society. However, in theManuscripts of 1844, Marx already speaks of money without the Jew and prefers to borrow from Goethe and Shakespeare to illustrate the simplified chain ofmoney - egoism - bourgeois society.[48] He even returns to Shakespeare – the favourite author of the whole Marx family – to seize upon the ‘essence of money.’[49] At the end of the section titled ‘The Power of Money’, Marx sums up the Shakespearean conception:

1. It is the visible divinity – the transformation of all human and natural properties into their contraries, the universal confounding and distorting of things: impossibilities are soldered together by it.

2. It is the common whore, the common procurer of people and nations.[50]

In a similar spirit of abandoning the Hessian perspective, Marx criticises Feuerbach for the fact that his material practice ‘is conceived and fixed only in its dirty-Judaical manifestation.’[51] Marx no longer wishes to stay on this phenomenal surface; he wishes to shift the terms of the question without yet providing an answer of his own. Nevertheless, these few traces of a reassessment of the question found in this series of posthumous writings inform us of the path Marx took before returning to the Jewish question for a second and final time.

According to De Fontenay, Marx’s first book, The Holy Family (authored with Engels), brings a new maturity to the question:the writing helps itself, the reflection recovers from what had been written a bit quickly and is given a chance to be seriously rethought.’[52] While the failure of the Deutsch-französische Jahrbücher project was confirmed after only one issue, Marx returned to the Jewish question in three subsections of the sixth chapter ofThe Holy Family, totalling a number of pages similar to his initial article.

As De Fontenay rightly urges us, reconstructing or criticising Marx’s thought on the Jewish question requires an account of the inflection of the argument in his work. In regard to The Holy Family, the first fact to report is that Marx, in his second duel against Bauer andhis Jewish question, completely drops the Hessian lexicon used in his 1844 article. The other new facts that must be reported, apart from the abandonment of the profanatory tone towards the ‘Sabbath Jew’, concern the support that Marx gives to a series of reviews by other Jewish rationalist and liberal writers who also reject Bauer’s theses. Marx aligns with these positions, pleads again for civil rights, and insists even more on the legitimacy of a Jewish difference (i.e., a freedom of religion). ‘Herr Bauer was shown that when the Jew demands freedom and nevertheless refuses to renounce his religion, he “is engaging in politics” and sets no condition that is contrary to political freedom.’[53] Jewish emancipation is even a criterion for judging the advancement of a state, because ‘states which cannot yet politically emancipate the Jews must be rated by comparison with the perfected political state and shown to be under-developed states.’[54] By way of Marx’s self-comments on his intentions in Zur Judenfrage, he returns at least ten times to his initial article. These make clear that his contribution inThe Holy Family is intended to be a clarification – not a revision – because the problem was, in the author’s opinion, already quite well positioned: political emancipation is progress for the Jews, but it does not yet amount to their social emancipation. ‘That is the point of view from which the “political emancipation” of the Jews should have been dealt with and is dealt with in theDeutsch-französische Jahrbücher.[55]

Right-wing Zionism’s attack on Marxism

Against all expectations, this turn in the debate and the evidence that accompanies it do not at all resolve the question in France. The discursive function of an antisemitic Marx is far too convenient to its proponents to be abandoned. Added to this was the aggravation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which, with the definitive victory of the Israeli right in 1977, infused the Zionist project with a good dose of religious fundamentalism and obsession with security. This rightward shift of Zionism reconfigured the ideological map of its supporters: ‘after having aroused sympathy within the non-communist left gathered within the Socialist International, it is mainly in US neoconservative circles and evangelical sects that he now reaps a full support.’[56] The legitimacy of anti-Zionism, within a left-wing horizon, diminished just as much as the discredit which struck Marxism increased during the 1980s. Indeed, since the conquest of the media space in 1979 by the anti-Marxist Nouveaux philosophes, Bernard Henri-Lévy and André Glucksmann, and the coming to fashion of totalitarianism’ studies, which in the 1980s brought together the Leftist critics of the USSR (e.g., Claude Lefort) and conservative critics of the revolutionary tradition (e.g., François Furet), the anachronistic ‘antisemitic’ reading of Marx has persisted all too well.

Claude Lefort[57] negatively judges Marx’s contribution to the criticism of the rights of man, even if the latter conceived them as ‘a necessary, but transitory, phase of human emancipation.’[58] Although these rights remain ambiguous, as Zur Judenfrage attempts to demonstrate by opposing the right to property to other formal rights inboth the French and American constitutions, Marx, according to Lefort, wouldn’t ‘give the notion of human rights its full meaning.’[59] Marx would not have seen that these rights challenge state sovereignty and the fiction of the One-People. Against the Marxist critique of civil rights, Lefort makes a call to go beyond the categories trapped in the 1844 article and recognise, contra Marx, that a social power arises from the democratic revolution of political rights, which then gives rise to new rights, including for social, identity, and gender issues. In the light of the Fifth French Republic – and not of the bloody repressions of 1848 or 1871 that Marx rightly links to bourgeois rule – Lefort sees in the struggle for the extension of human rights in the East (against Moscow) and in the West (against undemocratic tendencies) a common political will ‘to exploit the resources of freedom and creativity.’[60] Despite his post-Marxist critique of Marx and his critical judgment that accusations of an antisemitic Marx come from ‘some imprudent or foolish individuals,’[61] Lefort nonetheless contributes to the anachronistic critique of Marx himself, demonstrating that (at least in France) it still has wind in its sails.

To wit, Francis Kaplan, whose father, Rabbi Kaplan, criticised de Gaulle in 1967, invested this niche and reiterated the ‘antisemitic Marx’ thesis launched by Misrahi in 1972. Kaplan’s 1990 essay, Marx antisémite?, quickly rids itself of the question mark in its title. He admits with nuance that the first part of Marx’s article expresses a ‘non-antisemitic position’ and even claims that the link between the Sabbath Jew and the profane Jew contained in the second part is faithful to Marx’s materialism, and is not as such antisemitic in itself. For Kaplan, however, things are quite different in the rest of the article. From the moment when Marx connects Jews, egoism, and huckstering as well as money, god, and Israel, he lapses into an ‘antisemitism in itself scandalous,’[62] which takes a ‘delusional form’ in his 1844 article and returns in an ‘ordinary form’ in later works and in Marx’s private letters.

Kaplan’s book, unlike Misrahi’s, confronts the question of Hess’ possible youthful ‘antisemitism’, for which Essence of Money is briefly cited, but concludes that the latter’s antisemitism is ‘less violent than Marx’s’[63] while refraining from alluding to the blood–money linkage in Hess. Even if Kaplan conducts a fair analysis at times, he eventually unleashes against those interpreters of Marx who do not arrive at his conclusions – regardless of whether they are from France (Rubel, Mandrou, Châtelet, De Fontenay) or elsewhere (Hannah Arendt, Isaac Deutscher, Roman Rosdolsky). While geopolitical trends of the early 1990s crushed the vestiges of the USSR and really-existing socialism, Kaplan’s charges unfolded violently: ‘those who find Marx’s language normal are antisemites who dare not display themselves as such,’ and criticism of the State of Israel by these same interpreters acts merely ‘as the justification for current antisemitism.’[64] These out of place remarks did not give rise to any sustained response, but they do show that, for some, criticism of Zionism can never be legitimate.

Against Counterfeits: the ‘right path’ for Jewish identity formation

In this vein, the Jewish sociologist Pierre Birnbaum revived the French controversy over the ‘antisemitic Marx’ some fifteen years later. A child survivor of the collaborationist Vichy government, Birnbaum lived in hiding with peasants from the Pyrénées at the height of the Nazi deportations to the death camps. For him, the question of how the French state, having once emancipated the Jews and allowed them to attain high public offices, could suddenly reverse course and collaborate in their extermination,remains a ‘mystery’.[65]Birnbaum is thus interested in the history of the French Jews and of the antisemitic hatred of which France shows itself to be capable. It is in light of this last theme that he ventures, in Géographie de l’espoir,[66] into the field of political ideas by reviewing the life and work of some European Jewish intellectual figures including Durkheim, Simmel, Arendt, Aron, Berlin, and, first and foremost, Marx.

Birnbaum’s overall thesis still resembles the ‘right path that the Jewish identity-formation must take. The latter must be assumed by resisting assimilation or the fluidity of multiple identities. The author borrows heavily from Francis Kaplan’s argument, including from the exhaustive inventory of all of Marx’s anti-Jewish remarks in his letters. In Birnbaums narrative, Marx is cast as the anti-model: one should have “[convinced] him to take into consideration questions of identity without relating them solely to the logic based on means of production that are indifferent to popular values and imagination.”[67] Instead of Judaism disappearing through socialism, in and with human emancipation, Marx shall disappear through Judaism, in and with Jewish nationalism.

In the critical words of Enzo Traverso and Sai Englert, we could say that Birnbaum represents the culmination of a ‘conservative turn’[68]among many Jewish intellectuals, like Raymond Aron or Isaiah Berlin, who adhere to ‘an understanding of identity, one which assumes it to be static and individual.’[69] We note that Birnbaum’s approach innovates relatively little in the debate. It relies on the Zionist Moses Hess of 1862 to draw the right line while being completely silent on his anti-Jewish writing of 1843, which influenced Marx and from which Marx quickly detaches himself. The argument is, as in Misrahi and Kaplan, in the past conditional and therefore remains anachronistic or teleological: Marx should not have been materialist and socialist; he should have been a Zionist and a Jewish nationalist – even religious. This incriminating or exculpatory criterion, depending on whether it is Hess or Marx, still dictates the standards of evidence used to prove or disprove their ‘antisemitism’.

Two elements, however, distinguish Birnbaums approach. First of all, he is laudatory towards Bauer, who expresses ‘a surprising sensitivity to the most concrete history,’ especially when he uses the expression ‘Jewish people’ and when he ‘seems to briefly envisage favourably the Zionist hypothesis.’[70] What might seem like another mystery here – the sympathy for the reactionary Bauer – is explained by the fact that Birnbaum prefers an argument against the assimilation of Jews, even if it comes from an ethnic and nationalist antisemite, rather than an argument for the social emancipation of Jews from a materialist in search of human emancipation. As a result, even if Birnbaum concedes that the Jewish reference disappears from Marx’s work after The Holy Family, he sees this as more ground for suspicion. Therefore, he takes up the idea of a tight collage, already available in Kaplans work, of all the anti-Jewish occurrences in Marx’s private letters to infer a sort of basso continuo ofhis (mis)conceptions on the Jewish question. From this string of Judeophobic insults – especially towards the socialist Jew Ferdinand Lassalle, who also does not escape, paradoxically, the suspicions of ‘Jewish antisemitism’[71]Birnbaum goes further than all the anti-Marxists listed above and seeks to link Marx to the conspiratorial spirit of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.[72]With regard to the polemical goal he sets for himself, this testifies to Birnbaum’s lack of sensitivity to the most concrete history.

The anger of Birnbaum’s opponents followed soon after. This new anti-Marx argument not only provided another pretext for a new French translation of Zur Judenfrage by Jean-François Poirier, published by La Fabrique, but also for the very first French publication of Bauer’s second text criticised by Marx.[73] Herein, the Jewish Marxist theorist and activist, Daniel Bensaïd, presents a detailed, critical apparatus which is just as polemical as Birnbaum’s. The ground for this was prepared by a previous work by Jacques Aron, a Belgian-Jewish intellectual who takes issue with the false parallel between criticism of the State of Israel and antisemitism and with the role attributed to Marx in this anachronistic trial.

In Karl Marx, antisémite et criminel ?, Aron provides a strong argument in defence of Marx. He recalls that his ‘infamous’ 1844 article, which appeared in a German-language journal in Paris, had very little readership since the print was almost entirely seized at the French-German border.[74] To lend such influence to a text instantly forgotten is a material impossibility. Aron also insists on the anti-Judaic context (perfectly embodied by Bauer and the Christian State of Prussia in 1843) which determines the state of the question before Marx:

Marx’s article is at the same time a theoretical approach to the institution of the state, to the place that religion should or should not hold in it, to the notion of emancipation, and to the ‘Jewish question’, in the sole religious sense of the question both for Jews and non-Jews at this moment.[75]

He recognises that Marx proceeds to an ‘abusive criticism of Judaism’ and he excuses this along a line similar to De Fontenay by speaking ‘of a theory still in formation and still elementary in several matters.’[76] In short, his strategy borrows a little from a teleological perspective to compensate for what remains an anachronistic trial.

In Bensaïd, who was leader of the Revolutionary Communist League and of the Fourth International, teleology by excess of sympathy towards Marx also plays a compensatory role in the face of the dubious strategy chosen by the opposing camp. Thus, the conjunction of money and Jew would be ‘a pending concept’[77] and not a vulgar prejudice, because Marx’s fixation thereon would anticipate ‘without yet understanding... commodity fetishism,’[78] which he developed in the first volume of Capital some twenty years later. More rigorously, Bensaïd does recognise that Marx reflects from inside a theme imposed on young radical Hegelians, namely the criticism of religion which is coming to the end of its course. Bauer chooses to essentialise the Jews, like others do for Muslims today, who he believes ‘voluntarily excluded themselves from the common society by their stubbornness in cultivating their religious singularity and [who are held] therefore responsible for the oppression suffered.’[79] Marx tears this line of argument apart by pleading for freedom of religion and by reflecting not on the will but on theexternal circumstances which found religious beliefs.

Against the rigidity of identity that facilitates state power, Bensaïd closes his response with a critique of the State of Israel and the instrumentalisation of the Shoah. ‘The corollary of the absolute uniqueness of the Jewish tragedy is then the theological justification of the secular existence of Israel, and the absolution of its misdeeds in the name of the Jewish exception.’[80] These comments on contemporary politics reveal, as Sai Englert shows in the UK context, that Bensaïd is indeed very distant from Misrahi, Kaplan, and Birnbaum when he resists the ‘state’s essentialisation of Jewishness under the banner of Zionism.’[81]

In France, anti-Zionism is indeed either caricatured or fought by an ‘equally’ legitimate defence of intransigent Zionism. Yves Charles Zarka, director of the journal Cités, endorses this discourse:

Anti-Zionism today aims to completely delegitimise the Israeli fact. For some, this contestation is not only about the territories occupied since 1967, but about the very existence of this state. The theme of the radical delegitimisation is: Israel is one state too many. We must end it. New version of the final solution, no doubt.[82]

Similar to Judith Butler,[83] Bensaïd’s critical position, which relates to the minority current of Jewish anti-Zionism, certainly thwarts this equivalence between criticism of Israel and genocide.[84] However, Bensaïd reflects little, if at all, on the poverty of Marx’s analysis of religious beliefs and pleads for a resumption of the same critical and profaning attitude in the face of the return of theology. He is wary of ventures, à la Birnbaum, aimed at reconnecting the sacred and the is now commonin Jewish Studies,[85] and prefers by far Marx’s call to ‘transform theological questions into profane questions.’[86]

Finally, another upsurge in the anachronistic trial against Marx is found in the work of André Sénik, an ex-communist Jew and a particularly harsh anti-Marxist voice. Unlike Lefort’s nuances of Marx’s mistakes in his criticism of human rights, Sénik posits Marx’s youthful text as nothing less than ‘the origin of the communist catastrophe.’[87] His book, Marx, les Juifs et les droits de l’homme, is said to be inspired by Francis Kaplan, but the subject matter and quality of his commentary on Marx’s work are quite different. The author attacks the very idea of emancipation by equating it with totalitarianism. This shift is for us symptomatic of the exhaustion of the attempt to link Marx to antisemitism. As a matter of fact, the book’s equally anti-Marxist afterword is signed by a specialist in French antisemitism, Pierre-André Taguieff, who is careful not to repeat the accusation of an ‘antisemitic Marx’. He speaks of the 1844 article as an ‘essay with Judeophobic overtones.’[88] Nevertheless, he agrees with Sénik in deriding the word ‘emancipation’ used today by the left (from Jacques Rancière to Philippe Corcuff), with very little sympathy for the term which has historically described the advancement of Jews, Blacks, women, and ethnic and sexual minorities for two centuries.

From our standpoint, the French controversy over an antisemitic Marx, although it does not bridge the two camps together over the value of historical materialism, nonetheless helps develop a factual basis regarding this ill-founded accusation. The latest French edition of the unique issue of the Deutsch-französische Jahrbücher, published in the GEME by Alix Bouffard and Pauline Clochec, departs from this controversial field of debate. A new generation of scholars ‘rewrites Marx in a new way’ and proceeds meticulously to establish the 1844 text according to the best standards ofmarxologie, that is to say, by treating Marx as a nineteenth-century author and not as a weapon speaking directly to today’s struggles. Published in 2020, Clochec’s introduction claims to take a middle position, that is to say, it refuses to considerZur Judenfrage as an antisemitic textwhile recognising in it Judeophobic traits and a philosophical anti-Judaism.[89]

This position fits between the absolutions of Daniel Bensaïd and Jacques Aron and the calls to see in it a fully antisemitic text calling for the extermination of the Jews as do Robert Misrahi, André Sénik, and Pierre Birnbaum.[90] It should be noted, however, that as the translator of the disputed text, Clochec opts for the more neutral formulas of trade and greedto talk about ‘the everyday Jew’. This differs from the edition commented on by Bensaïd that speaks of ‘agiotage’, which is closer to the pejorative meaning associated with the wordSchacher used by Marx.Nevertheless, she does stipulate that Marx proceeds to a revival of the Judeophobic stereotypes attributing to an essence of Judaism the social activities to which medieval Christendom assigned the Jews.[91]

In a concise manner, the following observations that the GEME collects in its scholarly commentary on Zur Judenfrage nonetheless clear the young Marx of the accusation. These three statements (and their pieces of evidence) are certainly binding for any mind sensitive to historical caution: 1) ‘Against Bauer, [Marx] seeks to defend this emancipation for which he had signed a petition in March 1843[92] (e.g., Marx’s letter to Ruge); 2) ‘Judeophobic representations are common at the time and are even shared by intellectuals of Jewish origin, such as Hess and Marx[93] (e.g., Hess’ Essence of Money); and 3) ‘Marx does not reject all instrumental use of human rights. Rather, he relativises their use by making them the means of an only incomplete emancipation[94] (e.g., The Holy Family). Building from a long history of virulent debate in France that helped produce and refine a deeply-contextualised evidentiary basis for interpreting the young Marx’s text, these observations characterise an historically-cautious reading in light of which we cannot but view Marx’s trial as anachronistic. Nevertheless, to avoid the naivety of concluding that scholarly reason can guide political reason, let us simply note that the debate could be reopened at anytime as the relationships between Marxism, Zionism, and antisemitism are reconfigured in the years and decades to come.For now, however, we must admit that the anachronistic character of Marx’s trial over antisemitism does not excuse the flaws of Marxism itself. Whether in its understanding of late nineteenth-century antisemitism or of the persistence of the Jewish and religious questions to the present day, Marxism leaves us with several thorny problems that we shall now briefly examine.

Historicising Marx in the face of antisemitism, Islamophobia, and Secularism

Through his adherence to the democratic radicalism of the early 1840s, Marx adopted an assimilationist position that will never have left him and whose influence will have been present in the socialism of the following century.[95] As a consequence, Marx’s – and Marxism’s – prognosis for the abolition or ‘fade out’ (Aufhebung) of Judaism through the disappearance of its profane conditions does little either to foresee the perpetuation of Judaism (and other religions) or to explain the strength of racist antisemitism from the end of the nineteenth-century.

As Zionist and nationalist opponents have pointed out, Marx remains largely ignorant of the concrete situation of the Jews, their oppression by the Prussian state, and their real social position in the European economy. While Marx’s ‘pre-Marxist conception of capitalism’ is trapped in the sterility of the Jewish–bourgeoisie association, which is ignorant of the fact that ‘[Jewish traders] were rather pushed out by the nascent bourgeois classes,’[96] his democratic radicalism – tinged with the Enlightenment’s secular rationalism – leads to the underestimation of the scope and persistence of antisemitism.[97]

These issues are crucial. And if the ambiguity of classical Marxism with regard to antisemitism has led us to mention them, they are, however, only the prelude to a second challenge posed to the young Marx’s analysis. Namely, the post-2001 context that many identify with a ‘return of religion’, or even a ‘crisis of secularism’, indeed seems to correspond to ‘a revenge of the sociology of religions against a Marxian “master narrative.”’[98] Among the elements of this narrative, the ‘secular prejudice’ which characterises Marx’s article does not resolve the point ‘that religious consciousness does not fade or die with a secular commitment to its formal expungement from spheres or practices.’[99] The mechanistic thesis of the disappearance of religion through the disappearance of its profane conditions of existence still poses an analytical and, above all, political problem.

On the one hand, we could say that, due to an oversight in the materialist critique of religions and the persistence of the idealistic cult of secularism and the state, ‘the 1840s still lie ahead of us.’[100] The return of religious questions makes it thus possible to reconnect with Marx in order to unmask the hypocrisy of debates on secularism which are disinterested in the material and social condition of believers. On the other hand, we have to admit that Marx does not prepare us to understand how the ‘presumptions that implicitly forecast a combination of reason, science, liberal democracy, and the market as dethroning religious political authority and energies [never took place].’[101]

In light of the secularism crisis and growing Islamophobia in France, the question of religious minorities and their ‘assimilation’ to the ‘national majority’ is conducive to such a renewal of the question and the problem tackled by the young Marx. Indeed, theLaw on religious symbols in French public schools, voted into force in 2004, targets Muslim girls and reveals the specificity of France’s – and of a large part of the French left’s – conviction ‘that Muslim religious practices are incompatible with the secular, republican traditions of the French state.’[102] This rather ‘Bauerian’ conviction, which passes from the thesis of ‘unassimilable’ Jews to that of ‘unassimilable’ Muslims, is not shared, for example, by the Anglo-Saxon left which, in the vast majority of cases, has no principled opposition to the wearing of religious symbols. The troubled context of French secularism, which grants a historical privilege to Catholicism while crushing minority religions, perhaps means that its catholaïcité ‘has acquired an ethnic and exclusivist connotation, slipping into what amounts, relative to a more genuine and egalitarian universalism, to a racially coded particularism.’[103]

The French left, in particular Marxist thinkers, had to end up confronting these issues. Directed by Michael Löwy and Étienne Balibar, a special edition of Actuel Marx, entitled ‘Religions’, admits that ‘the current situation forces us to put into perspective what was for a long time a certainty of Enlightenment rationalism and of a certain Marxism, that of an irreversible progress of secularisation, and for republican France, oflaïcisation.’[104]

Against the return of the type of grievances that Bauer threw at Jewish ‘incapacity for emancipation,’ André Tosel notes that the context of the 1840s seems to ‘come back’ with the same arrogance on the part of the post-Christian states which are hunting for the ‘infamous’ from within:

On the one hand, Christianity would be the only religion to have exited from religion and, on the other hand, this character would speak to its own superiority. Western society, in the name of universalist and secularised Judeo-Christianity, comes to erect its superiority en bloc by developing a critique of foreign religions asothers, still ‘backward’ foreigners, and by granting this superiority to itself with a good conscience that touches on racialisation.[105]

This racialisation, now directed against Muslims, means that the so-called neutrality of secularism becomes more of an anti-immigration battle horse, prioritising post-Christians above Muslims in terms of their capacity for ‘secularisation’. This diagnosis joins that of Rogers Brubaker about a “civilizationist” [turn in] national populisms, founded on the notion of a civilizational threat from Islam.’[106]This shift is currently benefiting the rise of the far right[107]and confines the left, which criticises the ‘weaponisation’ of secularism, to the perimeters of the insult drawn by Islamo-leftism’ – a bad copy of the former antisemitic fear towards Judeo-Bolshevism’.[108]

In order to fight against new forms of racism, contemporary critical thinkers must again problematise Marx’s relationship to religion. Mohamed Amer Meziane criticises, for instance, the spirit of the Feuerbachian critique of religion and goes so far as to argue that its incorporation into Marxism leads to aporias in the anthropology of religious beliefs.[109] By adopting the ‘secular prejudice’ which makes the United States a norm in matters of religious concord under a secular state, Marx gives in to the conception of both religion and humanity ‘in general,’ and this abstraction leads him to reduce religion to ideology ‘in general.’[110] In a sometimes-cryptic way, the author reproaches the young Marx’s profanatory tone, an abstract atheism which dismisses a little quickly, according to him, the foundations of religious beliefs:

Atheism demands that humans liberate themselves from an illusion, but this requirement makes no sense if it does not require the suppression of the world that makes this illusion necessary and vital. The project of merely abolishing religion in an inhuman world equals a desire to suppress the only breathable air in a world where people suffocate without making this very world more breathable.[111]

While 1840s Germany made the air rather unbreathable to a whole generation of atheist philosophers who were banished, for this reason, from the academic profession, it must be recognised that the enlightened critique of religious beliefs, radicalised in different tones by Bauer, Feuerbach, and Marx, comes back to haunt the contradictions of the contemporary situation. A double movement of secularisation and de-secularisation is unleashing around the globe. ‘As Europe becomes more secular, it is increasingly represented as (Judeo-) Christian, in constitutive opposition to Islam.[112] The return of the religious might not be the mote in the Other’s eye, but rather the beam in the eye of the ‘proudly secular Euro-Atlantic societies [who] are “outing” their own religious predicates as they defend their expressly Christian nature and give the lie to the notion that secularism entails religious neutrality.’[113]

Actuel Marx recognises this critical perspective by translating an article by Talal Asad. The anthropologist of religions outlines a research program which poses a challenge to Marxism and which consists in re-examining the link between religion and the State, because ‘the categories of “political” and “religious” are involved with one another, in the final analysis, more deeply than we thought.’[114] In the competition to shape and govern life, including in its material, bodily practices, state and religion perpetually reformulate their relationship to one another, and this porosity that no secularisation has so far managed to contain ‘makes them both equally “political.”’[115]


In a formula which honours Marx and invites us to continue his critical work, Tosel does say that ‘secularisation becomes de-secularisation by realising a world full of fetishes and not void of religion.’[116] The religiosity that can quickly take hold of the ‘secular’ admirers of the state was already part of Marx’s sarcasm towards the theologian Bauer: ‘His faith in Jehovah changed into faith in the Prussian state.’[117] Among other new fetishes, the Jewish identity that Birnbaum et alii conceive ahistorically is also discredited by the young Marx who conceived the Jewish question only ‘through history,in andwith history.’[118]

Let us note again, by way of conclusion, that Marx remarked in 1843-1845 that political emancipation and formal equality recognise the citizen while maintaining the believer; they both recognise the exercise of citizenship in the state while consecrating the egoistic individual who enjoys their property in civil society. Thus, there is no contradiction between political emancipation and the supposed Jewish ‘essence’. Jews are just as fit as Christians for emancipation ‘within the framework of the prevailing social order.’[119] The Jewish question, and nowadays the Muslim question, points rather to the still unsolved problem of concrete human emancipation, the one which unites humans to their species ‘in [their] everyday life, in [their] work, and in [their] relationships,’[120] and which challenges the abstract idols of state, citizenship, and legal rights.

In this vein, the Israeli political scientist Schlomo Avineri inspires us with some further conclusive words about Marx’s intentions. In an article as short as it is illuminating, which appeared almost 60 years ago, Avineri already recalls that Marx was in favour of Jewish emancipation within the limited framework of bourgeois society.[121] Returning to his own analysis, he adds that there were, of course, two contradictory faces in Marx: ‘a radical critique of Judaism (and, incidentally, of Christianity) as a religion, coupled with unequivocal support for civic equality.’[122] The coexistence of solidarity and repulsion, which is nothing so unusual, is called in Freud ambivalence. This malaise is overcome the moment one considers ambivalence and contradiction as parts of a critical, self-critical, and analytical ethos open to movements in history.


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[1] An early version of this article was presented at the Relectures de Marx seminar, held by Michel Lacroix at the University of Québec in Montréal. I thank Émilie Bernier, Sai Englert, Frédéric Miville-Deschênes, Robert Sparling, Philippe Corcuff and the reviewers for their inspiring comments on the advanced manuscript. The actual version owes a lot to the careful reading of Robert Marinov, whom I warmly thank. I dedicate this article to the memory of Jean-Marc Piotte (1940-2022).

[2] See Leopold 2009, Stedman Jones 2016, and Fine and Spencer 2017. It is worth also noting that Yoav Peled brought out the detailed nuances necessary to understand the Marx-Bauer debate thirty years ago (Peled 1992).

[3] Karl Marx, Zur Judenfrage, MEGA I/2. Quoted hereafter in English translation (Marx 1844a).

[4] Jameson 2003, p. xi.

[5] The piece is part of the Deutsch-französische Jahrbücher, the only issue of which appeared in the winter of 1844 in Paris.

[6] For example, Kouvelakis (2003, 2005) does not deal with Marx’s criticism of Jewish religion. He takes up an interpretative line close to Georges Labica (1976) that Peled ranks among those who ‘downplay [Marx’] discussion of the Jewish question itself’ (Peled 1992, 463).

[7] Marx 1844a, p. 48.

[8] Marx 1844a, p. 48. Marx’s emphases. Isaac Deutscher recalls that this anti-Jewish prejudice is so common that the Oxford English Dictionary included it among the accepted meanings of the term ‘Jew’ (Deutscher 1958).

[9] Marx 1844a, p. 50.

[10] Marx 1844a, p. 51.

[11] Marx 1844a, p. 52.

[12] Edmund Silberner's early works seek all traces of antisemitism in socialism and help document the historical ambiguity of the latter towards the former. See Silberner 1949a, 1949b, 1953a, 1953b.

[13] Heinrich 2019, p. 51.

[14] Heinrich Marx (1777-1838) benefited from Jewish emancipation by pursuing a career as a lawyer following his conversion. He was in favour of Jewish civil rights and liberal Enlightenment, and it is reasonable to assume that his son Karl was aware of these political positions (Heinrich 2019, p.81).

[15] Azouvi 2016, p. 22.

[16] Sartre 1946.

[17] Zuckermann 2011, p. 172

[18] Greilsammer 2011.

[19] After Molitor, the French translations of Marx were momentarily placed under the responsibility of Maximilien Rubel, who published four volumes in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade at Gallimard between 1963 and 1994. Les Éditions Sociales, initially aligned with the French Communist Party, took over the scientific edition of Marx within the GEME. Zur Judenfrage was retranslated in 1968 (UGE), 1971 (Aubier), 1982 (Pléiade), 2006 (La Fabrique), then in 2020 within the GEME.

[20] Mandrou 1968 p. 7.

[21] De Gaulle 1967.

[22] Danan 2007, p. 138.

[23] Danan 2007, p. 139.

[24] Gurion 1967.

[25] Aron, R. 2007, p. 59.

[26] Azouvi, 2016, p. 22. Author’s emphasis.

[27]Bauer 1968. For the English version, see Bauer 1958.

[28] Mandrou 1968, p. 7.

[29] Mandrou 1968, p. 10.

[30] Châtelet 1971.

[31] Misrahi 1972, p. 32.

[32] Misrahi 1972, p. 33.

[33] Misrahi 1972, p. 230.

[34] Marx 1843.

[35] Marx also signed the Merkens petition of May 23, 1843. See Monod 2016, p. 275.

[36] De Fontenay 1973, pp. 13-14.

[37] De Fontenay 1973, p. 15.

[38] De Fontenay 1973, p. 67.

[39] De Fontenay 1973, pp. 23-24.

[40] Bensussan 2017.

[41] Misrahi 1972, p. 233.

[42] Avineri 2019, p. 47

[43] Hess 1845.

[44] Misrahi 1972, p. 232.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] De Fontenay, 1973, p. 62.

[48] Marx 1844c.

[49]Shakespeare schildert das Wesen des Geldes trefflich [Shakespeare excellently depicts the real nature of money] (Marx 1844c).

[50] Ibid.

[51] Marx 1845b.

[52] De Fontenay 1973, p. 39.

[53] Marx 1845a.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Charbit 2011, p. 120

[57] Lefort 1981. Quoted hereafter in English translation.

[58] Lefort 1986, p. 250.

[59] Lefort 1986, p. 245.

[60] Lefort 1986, p. 272.

[61] Lefort 1986, p. 250.

[62] Kaplan 1990, p. 50.

[63] Kaplan 1990, p. 87.

[64] Kaplan 1990, p. 68.

[65] Birnbaum 2020.

[66] Birnbaum 2004. Quoted hereafter in English translation.

[67] Birnbaum 2008, p. 38.

[68] Traverso 2016.

[69] Englert 2018, p. 150.

[70] Birnbaum 2008, p. 53.

[71]Silberner 1953b.

[72] Birnbaum 2008, p. 59-60.

[73] Bauer 2006. For the English version, see Bauer 1978.

[74] Aron, J. 2005, p. 167. Details of the seizure of this one-issue, almost confidential publication can be found in Mehring: ‘They succeeded in confiscating 100 copies […] on a Rhine steamer, and well over 200 copies on the French-Palatinate frontier near Bergzabern’ (Mehring 1962, p. 62).

[75] Aron, J. 2005, p. 50. Author’s emphases.

[76] Aron, J. 2005, p. 66.

[77] Bensaïd 2006b, p. 100.

[78] Bensaïd 2006b, p. 107.

[79] Bensaïd 2006a, p. 20. Emphasis added.

[80] Bensaïd 2006b, p. 133. This position is also shared by Traverso, who criticises the ‘civil religion’ of the Holocaust (Traverso 2016, pp. 113-127).

[81] Englert 2018, p.171.

[82] Zarka 2011, p. 17.

[83] Butler 2012.

[84] Philippe Corcuff, a close comrade of Bensaïd, is nevertheless of the opinion that ‘the current majority of so-called “anti-Zionist” discourses on the Internet and on social networks, in France, are antisemitic in style’ (Corcuff 2020, p. 408). This strengthens those who, against this disguised return of antisemitism, fully defend Israeli policy. For a radical critique of anti-Zionism in France, see Taguieff 2010.

[85] Bensaïd 2006b, p. 129.

[86] Bensaïd 2006b, p. 135. The author takes up a reading which, like Labica and Kouvelakis, penetrates as little as possible into the religious field to focus only on the Marxian critique of political emancipation.

[87] Sénik 2011.

[88] Taguieff 2011, p. 227.

[89] Clochec 2020, p. 35.

[90] Ibid.

[91] Clochec 2020, p. 32.

[92] Clochec 2020, p. 31.

[93] Clochec 2020, p. 34.

[94] Clochec 2020, p. 33.

[95] Traverso, 2018 p. 22. The author offers a comprehensive critical analysis of these problems. First published in France in 1990, The Jewish Question: History of a Marxist Debate, is not even mentioned once by Birnbaum or Senik. This omission is self-explanatory because, unlike proponents of the ‘antisemitic Marx’ thesis, Traverso retains Marx and Engels’ historicisation of social realities, including the Jewish question.

[96] Traverso 2018, p. 21. In 1942, Abram Leon brings nuances to these approximations of Marx by proposing the concept of people-class – ‘a social group with a specific economic function’ (Leon 1970, p. 74). Once made obsolete by the rise of the capitalist bourgeoisie, racist antisemitism instrumentalises the ghost of the largely dispossessed Jewish ‘people-class’. Leon denounces, Traverso recalls, the deadly ruse of Nazi antisemitism which ‘allowed the bourgeoisie to turn against the Jews the anti-capitalist radicalisation of the middle class’ (Traverso 2018, p. 191).

[97] The premises of the Marxist analysis, lavished by Engels, underestimate the scope of the phenomenon. Accordingly, Edmund Silberner shows that these ambiguities leave their traces in the ‘neither for nor against the Jews’ position taken by the Second International (Silberner, 1953a, p. 119). As for Engels, Mario Kessler recalls that he had two successive positions with regard to the Jewish question: the first corresponds to an anti-Judaic context (from 1840 to 1878), the second to an antisemitic context (after 1878). As racist variants of antisemitism replaced long-standing anti-Judaism, Engels revised his positions (Engels 1890) and attacked the theses of Eugen Dühring, who brandished ‘the killing and extermination’ as a solution to the Jewish problem. Around 1890 he even wrote an introduction to the Yiddish edition of the Manifesto (Kessler 1998, p. 40). Despite his sympathy about the appeal that socialism has held for generations of Jews, Isaac Deutscher also acknowledges that international socialism did not resolve the Jewish question (Deutscher 2017).

[98] Toscano 2010, p. 4.

[99] Brown, 2014, p. 112.

[100] Toscano 2010, p. 6.

[101] Brown 2014, p. 110.

[102] Callinicos 2008, p. 144.

[103] Callinicos 2008, p. 163.

[104] Tosel 2018, p. 8.

[105] Tosel 2018, p. 11.

[106] Brubaker 2017, p. 1193.

[107] Corcuff 2020. For the author, the strength of the far-right is primarily due to the imposition of its discursive themes within the entire political spectrum, from the right to the far-left. The result is a particularly dangerous ideological fog which he labels as ‘confusionism’.

[108] Traverso 2016, p. 90.

[109] Meziane 2018. Quoted hereafter in English translation.

[110] Meziane 2020. pp. 226-227.

[111] Meziane 2020, pp. 232-233.

[112] Brubaker 2017, p. 1212.

[113] Brown 2014, p. 110.

[114] Asad 2018, p. 100.

[115] Asad 2018, p.99.

[116] Tosel 2018, p. 11.

[117] Marx 1845a.

[118] Marx 1845a. Marx’s emphases.

[119] Marx 1844a, p. 35. Marx’s emphasis.

[120] Marx 1844a, p. 46.

[121] Avineri 1964.

[122] Avineri 2019, p. 53.

Global Palestine Solidarity and the Jewish Question

Sune Haugbølle

The question of antisemitism continues to trouble and disrupt pro-Palestinian activism. Today, the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s definition of antisemitism, agreed in 2016 along with a list of examples of antisemitism that tie it to critique of Israel, is routinely used by Israel’s proponents as a tool to silence, shame, and outlaw protest and debate. As of October 2023, the definition has been adopted by 43 countries. The roots of this linking of antisemitism and anti-Zionism can be traced back to the 1960s and 1970s, when much of the left globally adopted Palestine as a cause worthy of support. This article analyses the early debate about antisemitism, Israel and the ‘Jewish Question’ in Palestine Solidarity movements and among Palestinian groups. It shows that activists were aware of the need to address the issue sensitively, but at the same time found it essential to formulate a critique of Zionism being part of capitalist, racist and imperialist practices. By reading into early solidarity publications and drawing on memoirs and interviews with former militants, the article first outlines how the connection between the global New Left and Palestine was established.[1] The article focuses on Denmark’s Palestine Committee (founded in 1970) and smaller leftist groups and publications associated with it. On the Palestinian side, it draws on sources from al-Fateh, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the material they distributed globally. The aim is to understand the exchange of views between Palestinians and solidarity activists, and to compare the Left’s readings of the Jewish Question and the Question of Palestine. The article shows how a historical materialist understanding of Zionism became widely established through meetings, exchanges, and texts. The final part of the article traces the development of the debates in the latter part of the 1970s and illustrates how the solidarity offensive triggered a pro-Zionist backlash which, over time, set the tone for the accusations of antisemitism today.      


This piece is being made available as a preprint edition of the double-volume Marxism and the Critique of Antisemitism special issue of Historical Materialism. Further additions will still be made before then. The final published version of this text will be made available on the Brill website in the coming months. We ask that citations refer to the Brill edition.All Illustrations are by Natalia Podpora.


Bridging the New Left and Palestine

In the spring of 1970, the cause of Palestinian liberation was gaining ground around the world, drawing new converts particularly from student groups, Marxist-Leninist New Left parties, and anti-colonial movements and governments in the global south. In Western capitals like Oslo, Berlin and Copenhagen, groups of young activists were preparing to launch Palestine Committees, while others were packing for a summer camp in Jordan organized by the General Union of Palestinian Students. In Amman, they would overlap with Western journalists reporting on the Palestinian fedayin and their struggle for freedom. Meanwhile, part of the Left in the West, for the first time since World War II, began to question what had remained an overwhelmingly pro-Israel viewpoint.

The quick turnaround had begun with Egypt’s Arab nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser defeat in the June 1967 war and Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula, and Gaza. In less than three years, the Palestinian Liberation Organization and its associated groups[2] had successfully broken away from Nasser and instead forged a national platform, creating independent alliances with states and civil society across the world. This internationalization or globalization of the Palestinian cause coincided with increased military confrontation with Israel through guerilla warfare from Jordanian territory, supported by the People’s Republic of China and other powers. The new militancy repulsed many in the West who already saw Palestinians as “Arab terrorists” bent on Israel’s destruction. For New Left groups, militancy often appealed as a necessary means to confront colonialism and imperialism that had proven successful in Vietnam, Algeria and elsewhere. As a result of these connected political impulses of the late 1960s, parts of the Left in Europe, which had until then favoured Israel, changed allegiance and became staunchly pro-Palestinian, all within a few years, starting with the June War in 1967 and culminating with the foundation of Palestine committees and other solidarity groups around 1970.[3] Scandinavia is a good example of this broader development on the Marxian New Left. Here, small groups of student activists had cultivated links to Palestinians since 1967. Now, in the summer of 1970, they were preparing to participate in General Union of Palestine Students activities in Jordan, after which they would return to their home countries and start up their national Palestine committees in Denmark and Norway. Swedish activists had already launched Palestine groups the year before. 

If Palestine bridged the gap between the Marxist-inspired youth rebellion in Western democracies and global South liberation movements, Amman, and later Beirut, became bridgeheads for those who wanted a taste of the revolution. The Palestinian space had become a new central node in revolutionary networks[4], where contingents of third-world politicians and Western solidarity activists coalesced, meeting in organised form in conferences such as the Second World Congress for Palestine held in Amman in September 1970, but also in less organized visits. For many revolutionary groups in the West, the Palestinians attained the stature of admirable front-line combatants in a global fight against US imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, and racism. Being with them involved a learning process, an exchange of theories and practical models for mobilization that in turn sharpened their own theoretical and organizational set-up. Ideas became entangled in this encounter, and differently situated struggles melted into each other in a new common revolutionary ‘problem space.’ Resolutions to key challenges that they all faced, albeit in different ways, emerged from their exchanges. One of these challenges concerned antisemitism.

Although evidence is often flimsy and ad hominem, the antisemitic slur has often been hard to overcome for the Left. In order to understand its roots, we do not have to go back all the way to the Judenfrage of Enlightenment Europe or the long trail of Marxist and socialist (ostensible) collusion in antisemitic descriptions.[5] The beginning of Palestine solidarity provides a more contemporary, and I would argue more compelling, perspective on the entangled origins of a problem that keeps reappearing and now, since the IHRA’s 2016 definition of antisemitism, is threatening to limit solidarity activities decisively. I show how, during this formative period, Palestinians made connections with activists elsewhere and drew strength from its entanglement with the counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Marxist framework shared – not universally, but widely - across these transnational alliances and networks provided a way to separate the cause of Palestine from the Jewish Question. I analyse this process of separation and speculate on its relative merits. At the same time, the analysis shows the difficulty of truly disentangling Palestine solidarity and the Jewish Question. I argue that this has contributed to allocating the Palestinian cause a fringe position in the Western political landscape. While the movement won victories in the UN with the granting of Permanent Observer status to the PLO in 1974 and General Assembly resolution 3379 equating Zionism with racism, great power politics moved only slightly in favour of the Palestinian position. Despite the hard efforts to change the parameters of the debate over Israel in the West, Palestine advocacy failed to persuade the Democratic Party in the US as well as most social democratic governments in Europe to take on their fundamental critique of Zionism. Instead, mainstream Western diplomacy worked to ‘de-radicalise’ the PLO, ushering their leader Yassir Arafat away from a one-state solution and towards a two-state solution that would include a land-for-peace arrangement, where certain elements of Palestinian rights to land and return would eventually be traded in for (ostensible) peace, first in the form of the Camp David Accords in 1978 and later the Oslo Accords in 1994.[6]

This article goes back to the time before all this came to pass – the flawed peace process, the Second Intifada, and the current impasse of Palestinian liberation - and also before the PLO was forced out of its headquarters in Jordan. Before September 1970, a different, more confrontational approach prevailed which spread to, and drew energy from, the Marxist-Leninist Left globally. In the context of this special issue of HM, I interrogate how solidarity activists in conversation with Palestinians dealt with the question of antisemitism back then - how they analysed it, confronted it, and in some cases resolved it. I draw on examples from across Europe and the US but highlight the case of Scandinavia in order to unfold how the delicate questions of Marxism, race, Jewish identity, and historical guilt played out in a particular context. My analysis shows that both Palestinians and solidarity movements were acutely aware of the dangers of antisemitic charges, and that they developed analytical models and explanations as well as practical operational measures to counter them.

Entanglement and Disentanglement on the Left

Framing Palestine as an anti-imperialist cause was the main defense against the charge of antisemitism. As the first activists coming out of Vietnam war protests saw it, the Zionist ideology of the Israeli state and its expansionist behavior epitomized rightwing ideologies of the US-dominated world order, which, so they believed, had to be challenged. Palestine activists who look back at the era remember an element of rebellion in their stance against the older generation of post-Second World War European leftists who had failed to see Palestine in a wider perspective. At the same time, once they had cleared their eyes of the internalised Zionist discourse that dominated mass media in the West, they felt not just changed but also utterly deceived by mainstream society. As the Danish Jewish historian and Palestine solidarity activist Morten Thing put it, “It was like the scales had suddenly fallen from our eyes. How could it be that when it came to this very crucial conflict in the world, we were never told the truth? We simply came to realise [after 1967] that we had been lied to, and that the lie was systemic and organised.”[7] Setting out to disprove the “lies,” as well shall see, Palestine solidarity confronted Zionist myths first and foremost. They drew on the analysis of Palestinians and in particular the work of Fayez Sayigh, founder of the PLO Research Center in Beirut, whose book series included several important volumes on Zionism, colonialism and racism that were distributed to solidarity activists globally. One of them, Zionist Colonialism in Palestine, written by Sayigh himself and published in English as early as 1965 and subsequently translated into several languages including Swedish [fig. 1], provided the historical background for interpreting Zionism as an expression of racism and imperialism. The booklet charts the development of Zionism as settler colonialism, and the Palestinian response in the form of military organization seeking allies across the world but particularly in the global south. As a colonial venture, writes Sayigh, Israel represents “a challenge to all anti-colonial peoples in Asia and Africa.”[8] However, the call resonated with anti-imperialists not just in the global south but across the world.  

fig 1 SH

In the act of engaging with this work, solidarity activists inevitably encountered the difficult Jewish Question and its long and bitter history in Europe. For someone like Thing, who grew up in a Jewish family, that encounter was self-evident, if problematic, painful and difficult. He had to face charges of treason and antisemitism from Jewish friends as well as Communist comrades, not just at the point of “coming out” as pro-Palestinian, but for the remainder of his life.[9] For other activists, concerns about antisemitism seemed trite and overblown, and to a large extent they ignored the charges. This led to several instances where the thin line between pro-Palestinian and what the IHRA definition today calls “Holocaust inversion”[10] – the portrayal of Jews as Nazis - was toed unsuccessfully.

Fig 2 SH 

One example is the Danish Palestine Committees’ 1971 boycott campaign against oranges from Jaffa [fig. 2]. These so-called “blood oranges” were pictured as Israeli general Moshe Dayan. Dayan was presented with highlighted Jewish features in several visual representations of the Left, as for example the magazine Ungkommunisten (The Young Communist) published by the Maoist organization KAK. Other examples include the use of the Star of David as a new swastika, such as in the drawings of the popular Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali, whose figure Handhala is an icon of the global solidarity movement to this day, or in the New Left magazine Politisk Revy. In a cartoon in the Palestine solidarity magazine Falastin [fig. 3], the swastika is lumped from Nazism on to the Jews, who pass it on, transformed to a Star of David, to the Palestinians/Arabs. The Swedish Maoist Palestine magazineFolkFronten (The Popular Front) went a step further and featured the swastika lodged inside the Star of David on the cover of their January 1975 issue on Zionism [Fig. 4]. The PFLP, whose translated material dominated in this group as well as in Denmark’s Palestine Committees, also often equated Israeli and Nazi practices. Instead of merely criticizing Israel for its colonialist practices, they routinely highlighted the hypocrisy of pretending to be a victim when in fact the Israeli state was making victims in their own occupation.

Fig 3 SH

If one were already looking for signs of anti-Jewish sentiments in pro-Palestinian material, these slogans and images could easily be interpreted as appropriations of tropes from the old antisemitic vocabulary of pre-Second World War Europe and even of Nazi propaganda. The PLO’s leadership was acutely aware how damaging and delegitimising for their cause this could be, particularly in powerful Western countries where public opinion was, from the outset, overwhelmingly pro-Israel. Therefore, when a wave of antisemitic soundings slogans in support of Palestine began to appear as graffiti in European cities in the spring of 1970, Fateh’s leadership was quick to denounce those who, in their own words, “wish to entangle the revolutionary cause of the Palestinian people struggling for national rights and return to the motherland with antisemites’ longing for racist schemes.”[11]

Fig 4 SH

This Fateh communique is instructive because it contains some of the key strategies that the Marxist-Leninist Left adopted for wrestling the antisemitic beast. The strategy derived not just from Marxist dogma but equally from an Arab intellectual tradition of critiquing antisemitism.[12] Three days earlier, another article in Le Monde reported on a Christian conference in Beirut, which gathered Arab Christian voices and organisations in support of Palestine. Their declaration highlighted the need to condemn “all explicit or hidden forms of antisemitism,” including those derived from a Christian tradition. Linking the use of Biblical texts to Zionist racist attacks on Arabs, the declaration stressed the need to oppose “all politico-religious systems (…) opposed to the dignity of mankind.”[13]

This logic, developed in Arab and European circles that connected through their affiliation with the cause of Palestine, created a blueprint for how to address the issue. First, the cause must be disentangled from antisemitism. Antisemitism is wrong and historically harmful, and must be critiqued, but on its own terms and not in relation to the question of Palestinian national rights. If it is critiqued, it must be contextualised as a European form of racism that was imported to the Middle East, and which mirrors anti-Arab and anti-Muslim stereotyping in Zionist rhetoric and practice. This separation requires particular labour and strategies at the intellectual and political level. A historical materialist reading of the Middle East conflict shows 1) the active role of US-led imperialism (which, so activists frequently repeated, was “the highest stage of capitalism” as Lenin had said) in Israeli colonialism; and 2) the common cause of Jewish and Arab workers and peasants who together should dismantle the Zionist state and build a socialist state based on secular religious parity. Moreover, since antisemites who long for “a racist scheme” are conspiring to sow hatred between people, those who defend Palestine must develop a counter-scheme based on education and factual enlightenment. Zionism, so the activists and the PLO believe, is itself a form of racism. Therefore, critiquing it risks implicating them in a “racist scheme.” In short, Palestinians and their allies must organise and educate the public if they want to win the information wars that from the late 1970s became known as hasbara (meaning ‘explaining’ in Hebrew) as a shorthand for the Israeli state’s public relations strategy to disseminate pro-Israeli information abroad and, if necessary, smear and undermine Palestine advocacy.[14] 

Wishing the Jewish Question Away

If early Palestine solidarity sometimes acted as if the Jewish Question did not exist, it was because they wanted to replace it with a different question: The Question of Palestine. What is known in Arabic as al-qadiya (the cause) became the single most important rallying point from the early 1960s onwards for revolutionaries of various shades, including Pan-Arabists, Communists, Marxist-Leninists, and Ba’athists, who would otherwise disagree on much else. This cause, or question, traveled to solidarity movements through translations of political programs, key texts, poetry of writers like Mahmoud Darwish, films, and conferences. Writing as an intellectual observer and a member of the Palestinian National Council, Edward Said developed a theoretical understanding of what he calls “The Question of Palestine” in his 1979 book by that name. Following straight after his famousOrientalism from 1978, Said replicates his Foucauldian method to interrogate the articulation and discursive contestation of Palestine, and how it has been used to legitimise the denial of Palestinian national claims. Palestine, he writes, is a contest “between an affirmation and a denial (…),” between those who seek to erase the historical facts of the presence of Palestinians on the land, and those who struggle to affirm and reestablish it.” This struggle between Palestinians and Zionists, therefore, is essentially “a struggle between a presence and an interpretation, the former constantly appearing to be overpowered and eradicated by the latter.”[15]

Said’s intervention highlights the existence of two questions, two entangled causes and problems metastasising throughout the global political field, where one is trying to sound out the other. In making this comparison, Said drew on a decade of international struggle since 1967 to ensure that a Palestinian Question existed next to the more illustrious Jewish Question. At the root of Said’s contestation, therefore, lies the challenge for Palestinians and their advocates to articulate the Palestinian Question and, if possible, separate it from the Jewish Question. Without the guilt of Holocaust and the weight of centuries of pogroms that include leftist complicity in antisemitism, the Palestinian Question appears as a clear case of unlawful appropriation of land. Articulating Palestine as a case settler-colonialism and necessary struggle to resist it puts it in a natural tandem with other related struggles in the formerly colonised world, and in theoretical harmony with Marxist-Leninist articulations of the global revolutionary cause.

Before we get to the Left’s attempt to disentangle the two Questions, let us consider the Jewish Question. The notion first emerged as a set of questions around the legal and political status of Jews in France and Germany in particular, but also in Europe more generally starting with the 1753 Bill of Naturalisation in England.[16] Should they be granted civil and political rights equal to those of Christian citizens and subjects? Would civic education make them loyal and integrated? In these debates, socialists often defended Jewish emancipation. But other times, socialists like Charles Fourrier and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon joined a populist view of Jews as opposed to the people: a group of deracinés cosmopolitans whose mercantilism served international capital and undercut socialist transformation. Towards the late 19th century, antisemitism had become a political weapon employed by opponents of liberalism and, in the case of France, the republican state which anti-Dreyfusards associated with Jewish France. This historical moment culminated in the Dreyfus Affair and gave rise to Zionism as an attempt to provide what Theodor Herzl called “a modern solution to the Jewish Question” in the form of a nationalist movement. Indeed, the Affair provoked Hertzl to make his political formulation of Zionism. The extreme and genocidal answer that Nazism gave to the Question was of course a dramatic escalation of this tradition of anti-Jewish thought in Europe, but also continued strains that were, from the beginning, supported by segments of the European Left.

In their study of two centuries of leftist reflections on the Jewish Question, Tire and Spencer have recently summarised the issue of antisemitism and the Left as a central dilemma first posed in the Enlightenment. The leftist dilemma is whether to stress a universalism for all, which sometimes overwrites the rights of minorities including Jews, or to stress a universalism of rights, including the right for minorities to be protected.[17] In relation to Israel, what is the strongest imperative: To defend universalism and therefore criticize Israel for its continued violations of humanitarian laws and principles as well as for the ethnic nationalism of its founding ideology? Or, conversely, to recognize the special status of Jews as a persecuted people in need of protection in the form of the state of Israel? Those who see global Palestine solidarity as capsized towards the broader ‘anti-Judaic’ tradition argue that it operates with an understanding of Jews as in some important regard the ‘other’ of the universal: “as the personification either of a particularism opposed to the universal, or of a false universalism concealing Jewish self-interest.” In making these statements, these critics claim, the pro-Palestine Left uncritically regurgitates classic antisemitic positions. Claiming to do so in the name of progress, justice or emancipation is nothing new: those were indeed the same terms of reference used by antisemitic socialists of the 19th century.

The answers given to this dilemma of universalism have waxed and waned since World War II according to changing sensibilities and historical contingencies. Arab nationalist, liberals, Marxists, and Islamists all refer to it as well.[18] We see the dilemma today in the clash between the recent Human Rights Watch report of April 2021 that accuses Israel of Apartheid, and the increasing number of countries signing on to the IHRA definition of antisemitism. The emergence of Palestine as a global cause for the Left after 1967 marks the most critical juncture in the history that has brought us to this point. With that shift, a strong new narrative developed seeing Israel as a frontline opponent in the global struggle against imperialism, racism, and capitalism. These universalist concerns came to override the equally universalist apprehension regarding antisemitism. The entanglement of Palestine with the youth rebellion, student movements, Maoism, protests against the war in Vietnam and the whole counterculture of the late 1960s, powerfully questioned and challenged the narrative about Israel that most of the global Left had cultivated, learned and internalized through various means since 1945. In the old narrative – created and perpetuated by Israeli intellectuals and propaganda but adopted and reinterpreted in the context of post-war Europe - Israel is an embattled defender of Western humanism against fascist onslaughts in the region. By resisting “fascist” (or even Nazi, as in the common rendition of Nasser as an ‘Arab Hitler’ in the 1960s) regimes in the region, Israel continues the struggle during the second World War against fascism and Nazism, so the discourse went. Europeans can make amends for being on the wrong side of history, or alternatively continue their resistance if they were involved in the battle against Nazi Germany. This kind of post-Holocaust solidarity was deeply inscribed in close relations between labour unions and labour parties in Israel and Western Europe, but also involved individual connections between Israelis and socialist kibbutznik volunteers, and movements such as the Western German Aktion Sühnenzeichen (Signs of Atonement) that starting in 1958 sent young German volunteers to work in Israel in order to compensate for the Holocaust.[19]

It was this whole set of relations and inherited guilt and atonement that Palestine solidarity rebelled against. Holocaust continued to matter, but in the time of decolonial struggle, ‘never again’ could no longer be a ‘never again’ reserved for the Jewish people, but rather a slogan for all peoples suffering from expulsion, persecution, stigmatisation, and racialised violence. We see this point hammered home in the vast amount of material produced by the PLO Research Center and the Institute for Palestine Studies in Beirut, and repeated by solidarity movements, including analyses of “the Zionist Mind,”[20] Zionism and Apartheid,[21] Zionist diplomacy,[22] Zionist terror,[23] and many other shades of Zionism. As Gilbert Achcar has shown, much of this material was written primarily in English with a foreign audience in mind. From the very moment of its birth, PLO members knew how important it was to communicate correctly about the Holocaust and Zionism.[24] 

Historical Materialist Readings of the Middle East Conflict

The June War in 1967 made many on the Left question the previously taken-for-granted understanding of Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East and Palestinians as “Arabs” who were either refugees in need of aid or terrorists threatening Israel’s existence. The change of mind was perhaps less dramatic in Scandinavia than in post-Holocaust Germany, but still significant enough to rouse suspicion and allegations of an underlying antisemitic motive from the beginning. Pro-Palestine groups in Scandinavia faced societies deeply embedded in sympathy for Israel. Even after 1967, state and private media continued to be dominated by pro-Israeli leanings. The Israeli labour party Mapai, which ruled Israel from 1948 to 1977 (after 1968 as the Labour Party), had institutional links with the Scandinavian Social Democrats, and the original Danish and Norwegian New Left parties (both called SF, short for Socialist People’s Party) created similar connections with their Israeli equivalent Mapam. To the left of Mapam, the Communist party Matzpen cultivated links with Palestinians and promoted a radical critique of Zionism, but this critique rarely reached a wider European leftist audience before 1967. Much more influential in Europe than Matzpen, Mapam and Mapai ran their own kibbutzim where thousands of young Europeans spent time in what they saw as a socialist microcosmos, places that served, as the Danish counterculture intellectual Ebbe Reich wrote in 1965, as “promising alternatives to the individualised life of Western society”.[25] The Communist parties in Scandinavia, as in all of Europe, kept close to the pro-Arab Soviet line in the conflict. The Soviet Union supported Egyptian and Arab League leadership, as opposed to the after 1965 increasingly vocal and independent PLO. However, this did not keep many communists from empathizing with the Palestinians’ plight and stressing their right to command their own struggle diplomatically and militarily. As a result, some eventually broke away from their party as part of the general upheaval of the New Left.

Since none of the established parties mobilized around Palestine, they left a fertile ground for the student protest movement and associated Marxist-Leninist groupuscules, as they were known in France. The Chinese position of supporting the PLO as part of a global emphasis on popular resistance and “people’s war” naturally attracted students who had wandered into new Maoist organisations. These were the milieus in which preparatory committees for Palestine solidarity movements developed. In fact, the Norwegian Palestine Committee, founded in October 1970, was almost uniquely associated with the Norwegian Maoist party AKP. The Swedish Palestine Groups (Palestinagrupperna) - various local branches that were not unified as PGS before 1975 – also had a heavy Maoist leaning. These first Palestine activists had to take an oppositional stance vis-a-vis many of their own comrades, some of whom remained skeptical about adopting a wholesale critique of Israel.

Morten Thing has provided an insightful account of this schism on the Left. Hailing from a Jewish background sympathetic to Communism, Thing was also active in the youth group Socialist Youth Front (SUF) and had, as was de rigeur, spent time in a kibbutz in the mid-1960s. After the June War in 1967, he began to question the basic belief that Israel in 1948 had indeed been “a land without people for a people without a land.” He began to criticize Israel’s occupation and the very nature of Zionism. He discovered Matzpen and wrote about them in the Danish press. Others on the Left joined him in developing a vocabulary drawing on writers like the French Marxist scholar Maxime Rodinson, who, inspired by Fayez Sayigh, articulated the notion of settler colonialism in an essay in Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous journalLes Temps Modernes immediately after the June 1967 war. Rodinson also wrote powerfully about the danger of amalgamating all kinds and degrees of enmity against Jews whatever the circumstances into one timeless, global nation. Particularly in light of the Holocaust, Rodinson argued, such a ‘nationalising’ approach risks lumping all expressions of hostility towards Jews, even those of the pre-Holocaust period, into one experience: the threat of total extermination. As several historians have shown, this is a gross misrepresentation of the complexities of Arab-Jewish relations before, during, and after the Shoah.[26]

This early critique and theorization of anti-Zionism can be tracked in the journal Politisk Revy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a Danish equivalent ofLe Novel Observateur where leading Danish intellectuals of the New Left like Thing published their essays. The journal dedicated its July 1970 issue to the question of antisemitism and the Middle East conflict. The issue provides a detailed overview of positions towards antisemitism on the Danish New Left at the time. In a review of the Swedish Maoist Staffan Beckman’s influential booksPalestine and US Imperialism andPalestine and Israel: a Left Analysis, member of the Palestine Committees Niels Frølich notes that since 1967, the Left in Europe and the US has had to revise its view of Israel and Zionism. This “awakening” has modified “the often idealistic and un-dialectical notion of history” ignoring “economic structure, class struggle, and the development of the productive forces.”[27] In another article in the issue, Jacques Hersh unfolds a Marxist analysis of Jewish history, drawing mainly on the work of the Jewish Trotskyite Abraham Leon, who was killed by the Nazis in 1942, and the Belgian Jewish historian Nathan Weinstock.[28] They both stress the economic specialisation of Jewish diasporas that, from the late Middle Ages, led to direct competition with native merchants. The competition over resources more than religious hatred provided the base structure for pogroms. Their exposed position effectively locked Jews in many European countries into positions as money lenders and economic advisors to the ruling class, making them complicit in exploitation. In Marxist terminology, we can say that Hersh supports the view that antisemitism is a superstructure for the base of European Jewry’s historical affiliation with feudalism and, later, capitalism. The competition between native and Jewish bourgeoisie in early capitalism explains why the Jewish Question appears in the early 19th century, merging socialist and nationalist anxieties, and eventually eliciting a mirror-image response in the form of Zionism. In conclusion, Hersh writes, “Zionism was and is the attempt by European Jews to resolve the Jewish Question without changing the [capitalist] societal structures that created the problem.” Socialism, and a democratic Palestine for Jews and Arabs alike, would be the solution that Zionism eschews.

This reading does not seek to pardon antisemitism but to provide a materialist reading that relativises Jewish history. Antisemitism in this interpretation is not innate or cultural, even if it may appear as such. Rather, as any form of racism, it is rooted in economic structures. This deconstructive approach to Zionism was shared by Palestinian thinkers like Ghassan Kanafani, whose work engages deeply with Jewish history and the logic of Zionism. Reporting from Beirut for Politisk Revy, his Danish wife Anni Kanafani stressed in her contribution to the special issue that the Jewish experience is not unique. When Zionists claim that antisemitism is an inevitable product of Jews living outside of their national home, Anni Kanafani wrote, they forget that “hostilities usually ensue when a large amount of immigrants, such as Italians or Irish in the USA, settle.”[29]

For many, this logic of relativisation ultimately extended to the Holocaust, which they argued should not be seen as a unique historical experience, but alongside and related with the Nakba – the eviction of Palestinians in 1948. This was perhaps the most difficult argument for Palestine activists to defend in Europe. To this day, the idea that the Nakba and the Holocaust can and should be read as interlinked historical events animates strong responses, as evidenced from the reaction to the recent bookThe Holocaust and the Nakba : A New Grammar of Trauma and History edited by Bashir Bashir and Amos Goldberg.[30] First published in Hebrew in 2015, the book brings Jewish and Arab intellectuals together to discuss the conflicting narratives of their respective traumatic experience. While it generated much positive debate in Israel and elsewhere, it also deeply provoked those for whom the Holocaust is a sui generis atrocity.

Anti-Zionism in the 1970s

What can be said and what can only be thought when it comes to Israel, Zionism, and antisemitism? How much self-censoring is appropriate, and to what extent should Jewish sensitivities extend to other publics, and indeed to a global public? These questions tend to be answered more cautiously today than fifty years ago. Palestine solidarity provided a brash and frank critique that ignored set cultural norms, in an optimistic belief that confrontational activism could turn the tide of popular opinion, and that speaking truth, no matter what, would be liberating. The Danish Palestine Committee in the very first issue of their magazine Falastin published an article that outlined their understanding of the Israeli state as Zionist, as opposed to the Jewish people of Israel with whom neither Palestinians nor the Committee had a problem as such. “Many people mistakenly think that Judaism and Zionism are one and the same. This is not so. Judaism is a religion of great importance. Jews are considered members of a religious community, but are neither nationally nor ethnically connected to their fellow believers in other countries. (...) Zionism on the other and is an international political movement which, due to ostensible ethnic and national ties, seeks to unite all Jews in a worldwide organization.”[31] According to the PFLP-affiliated Palestine Committee, Zionism was not just ideologically problematic as a form of anti-universalistic, racist nationalism, but also served as a connecting point to imperialist powers, not least Great Britain and the USA. Danish activists saw Zionism as the primary identification for Israel’s colonial extensions abroad. For example, they consistently dubbed the center-left newspaper Politiken as the ”Zionist outlet,” due to its editor in chief Herbert Pundik, a Danish-Israeli dual citizen who in the 1970s defended Israel staunchly (and later admitted that he worked for the Mossad during this period).[32] In this way, left-wing activists made Palestine part of an already established anti-imperialist struggle that also involved confronting parties, institutions and individuals on the Left who supported Israel. 

The critique of Zionism took several forms. As we have seen, Marxian journals like Politisk Revy andFolkFronten gave space to long, theoretical interventions that analysed Zionism from a historical materialist perspective. Political meetings and demonstrations, pamphlets, solidarity magazines and speeches condensed the critique to slogans and short formulations. As an example, the following speech was given by writer Lars Bonnevie during a May 1971 demonstration organized by the Palestine Committee in Copenhagen. Reproducing Hersh’ argument almost ad verbatim, Bonnevie calls Zionism “the result of contradictions in capitalist society.” Antisemitism, he continues, “spawned its own tragic mirror image: Zionism. Both are equally an expression of the ugliest trait of bourgeois society: racism.” Having set the historical frames for his speech, Bonnevie continues:

You cannot be in solidarity with Vietnam if you don’t support Palestine. You cannot be in solidarity with the freedom struggle of the Third World if you are not in solidarity with Palestine. It is the Vietnam of the Middle East. The same struggle. It is a long people’s war, fought by the broad masses. It is a struggle that inscribes itself in the worldwide confrontation with imperialism. It is a struggle that expands the political consciousness of the people and teaches it to trust its own power.[33]

The speech highlights the generative power of struggling against Zionism, both in terms of connecting to global struggles and in terms of connecting ‘the people’ with its potentials for political consciousness and mobilization. To unlearn Zionism, people had to learn globally applicable theories of capitalism and imperialism that gave direction to the struggle. 

The Backlash: Advocacy and Hasbara in the 1970s

Unlearning Zionism required knowledge of its historical provenance, but also its contemporary manifestations. To that effect, the Palestine Committee published a special issue of Falastin dedicated to Zionism in Danish schoolbooks [Fig. 5]. In this little pamphlet, the authors methodically go through the most common textbooks on Israel and the Middle East conflict, illustrating and picking apart the Zionist logic that underpins learning material.[34] They correct facts as they go along and provide references to other books with a more truthful rendition of history. This deconstruction shows how 1948 in all Danish schoolbooks was rendered as a Jewish war for survival triggered by Arab aggression; how Palestinians featured as poor refugees in need of UN aid and development; and how Israeli society was presented as advanced and justified in its defense against Palestinians. Equally glaring, the pamphlet finds, is the absence of massacres such as Deir Yassin in 1948 where Zionist paramilitary groups Irgun and Lehi killed at least 107 Palestinians, including women and children, but also the political history and transformation of Palestinians since 1967, and indeed any mention of the occupation. The booklet concludes with a historical timeline that sets the record straight for the reader, and then describes the emergence of the PFLP, the principal partner of the Danish Palestine Committee.

Fig 5 SH

Whether this effort had much of an impact beyond a small crowd (the booklet had a print run of 400 copies) is questionable. But it inspired other attempts to reach the broader public. One of them was a string of documentary films about Palestine produced and shown in Denmark in the mid-1970s. Palestinian efforts to educate and counter Israeli propaganda internationally was concentrated in the Palestinian Film Unit, set up in Jordan in 1969 and integrated into the PLO with the aim of winning international sympathy and solidarity by showing Palestine as one dialect in a global language of anti-colonial struggle. The Vietnam war, the world’s first mass-mediated conflict, had proven the ability of living images to influence public opinion. Palestinian directors produced films and circulated them internationally but also worked with foreign directors. One of them was Danish filmmaker Nils Vest, who supported the Palestine Committee early on and in the following years went on to produce two widely watched documentary films in 1973 and 1975, the latter of which sparked huge controversy. The production, reception, and public debate surrounding An Oppressed People is Always Right shows how the anti-Zionist campaign developed after the initial spark, and how the late 1970s eventually saw the rise of a coordinated counter-campaign. I analyse this debate here to show the strengths and limitations of 1970s activism, the rise ofhasbara as a response to it, and the place of antisemitism.

The title “An Oppressed People is Always Right” neatly summarises the central ideological position of the global New Left that led it to support Palestine. Marxists and anti-imperialist like Vest came to the cause of Palestine with a pre-set interpretive framework but were also committed to let the militants formulate their own struggle. The film was shot in Lebanon in October 1974, in close cooperation with al-Fateh. A cousin of Ghassan Kanafani, Nabil Kanafani, who had also edited Falastin, acted as advisor and facilitator in the preparation stage, thus aligning the film with the PFLP’s particular articulation of Marxism. Over the following year, Vest edited the film before showing it to the public in November 1975. In 44 minutes, the film creates a counter-narrative to the Zionist-influenced schoolbooks thatFalastin exposed. Interlaced with interviews of Palestinian fighters in Lebanon, daily life in refugee camps, and images of Israeli bombardments of Nabatiyyeh in May 1974, the film recounts the expulsion of 1948, the Zionist ideology of Israel, and the birth of armed resistance. It also focuses on the role of Palestinian women in the PLO and their attempt to liberate themselves from traditional norms through the armed struggle [fig. 6]. Finally, it connects the Palestinian armed struggle to liberation wars in the Third World. The director himself was unapologetic about his intentions, which were never to produce an “objective” documentary but “to try to communicate my impression of the Palestinians as I met them in Lebanon. I have taken their side quite clearly, because I believe that a great injustice has been, and is still being, committed against them. In the same way that I would take any oppressed people’s side, no matter their religion or colour of skin.”[35] This counter-narrative was necessary, he stated, because of the lack of Arab and Palestinian voices in the Danish public, which is much more attuned to Israeli views. Add to that the “chronic bad conscience about the murder of Jews during Second World War” and fear of being labelled antisemitic, which “tends to make people shut up. Or go even further and become anti-Arab. Which is of course not nearly as incriminating [in the eyes of ordinary Danes].”[36]

Fig 6 SH

In April 1976, the film was distributed for showings across Denmark in schools and public libraries through the Danish State Film Central (SFC), a state-run organization with a large influence over public education in the 1960s and 1970s. SFC also funded the film. The general scandal that ensued in Danish media and politics over the film ran over several years and resulted in the state forcing SFC to withdraw the film and replace it with an edited version.[37] The debate brought out Jewish and pro-Israeli organisations and individuals in a coordinated attack that drew the lines sharply between supporters of Israel and Palestine and forced some on the Left to take a more cautious approach.

The main pro-Israeli voices were the Danish Zionist Union, Danish-Israeli Association, The Conservative Youth Party, The Jewish Youth Association’s Cultural Group, and various Danish Jewish intellectuals including Herbert Pundik, the editor of Politiken. Their argument was, in short, that the film was heavily skewed, used false material and argumentation, and that SFC had become a tool in the hands of radical Marxists. In a December 31, 1976, article in the conservative newspaper Weekendavisen Gert Glick of the Jewish Youth Association claimed to have proof that the film falsified historical material. He and others writing in the months following the release took offense with the linking of Zionism and imperialism and demanded that the film be withdrawn. In early 1977, the documentation was presented to SFC, and the Minister of Culture was subsequently drawn into the case. A legal examination concluded that the charges were unfounded. However, the attacks in the press continued across Denmark, even in local newspapers many of which raised charges of anti-Jewish sentiments against “the leftist cultural elite” and their “anti-Israeli propaganda film.” And on January 24, 1977, the conservative dailyBerlingske Tidende published an op-ed accusing Vest of antisemitism. Vest responded, as did other leftist intellectuals, but the Minister of Culture was eventually forced to intervene and in March 1977 the film was removed from distribution and did not reappear before late 1978 in an edited version.

The debate is notable because it marks a moment when the sometimes ‘sectarian’ Marxian critique of Israel – with its small magazines and initiated groupuscules - entered the mass public through the public institution of SDF. This prompted a counterattack that showcased the presence and political clout of the pro-Israeli line in Denmark, and in doing so arguably caused it to grow into a more organised structure. The influence of the New Left in the cultural and media field notwithstanding, Zionist influence had proven itself strong enough to counter and eventually – at least partly – repel the attempt to shape mass opinion in favour of Palestinians. They had used the antisemitic slur to good effect, and although Vest and his defenders on the Left argued their case, some of the suspicion inevitably stuck with them, along with other associated suspicions of ‘working for the enemy’ that were so characteristic of the Cold War. Were these ‘activists’ really representing foreign interests (a question rarely asked about the pro-Israeli side)? Were they democratically minded? If not, perhaps that explained whyAn Oppressed People is Always Right won a gold medal at the 1976 film festival in Bagdad, as one critic wrote surlily inPolitiken.

This association with Arab anti-democratic political culture and antisemitism became a running theme of hasbara in Denmark. It only intensified over the years, culminating in April 1989 when the so-called Blekingegade-gang was arrested after killing a police officer in failed bank robbery in November 1988. The ensuing court case drew attention to the Maoist organization KAK which, starting at the very solidarity conference in Amman in 1970 that opened this article, had operated a criminal underground organisation for 19 years funneling money to the PFLP and working closely with Wadie Haddad, head of the PFLP splinter group that planned plane-jackings. One of the scandalous findings in the court case and the journalistic uncovering of the ‘gang’ that followed was a project to compile a list of Danes with Zionist sympathies and links to the Israeli state. The so-called “Z-files” were ordered by the PFLP operative Marwan Fahoum and eventually handed over by the gang member Bo Weymann via agents in Damascus. Weymann, whose confession in front of a camera was broadcast as a documentary in 2009, proclaims to have had no antisemitic motives, even if he did realise in hindsight that he should have made the connection between his activities and possible antisemitic intentions of his Palestinian comrades.[38] Although we do not know what this list was intended for, many Danish journalists and commentators interpreted the “Z-files” as a potential hit-list when the story broke in the early 1990s.

The portended antisemitism at the root of this affair became the ‘smoking gun’ of the Dansh radical Left’s complicity in Arab antisemitism with explicit reference to the Nazi era’s persecution of Jews. In the context of the end of the Cold War, the Blekingegade-case was used by revanchist right-wing intellectuals to solidify the association between the Marxist Left and anti-democratic, anti-humanist thought and practice. Palestine’s friends in Denmark and elsewhere in Europe had finally been exposed as useful idiots for sinister terrorists. After September 11, 2001, this discourse only increased, intersecting with the Israeli state narratives of being a bulwark against Islamist forces threatening Europe and the free world. While these tendencies far from put an end to Palestine solidarity, as witnessed by recurrent demonstrations, Freedom for movement runs in Palestine, the flotilla to Gaza, and various other forms of activism in the 2000s, they gradually changed the problem space of antisemitism, while the early 1970s faded into memory.       

Conclusion: Lessons for today

How does the frank and direct anti-Zionism of the 1970s analysed in this article compare to the situation today? On the one hand, the linking and ‘frame bridging’ between Black Lives Matter and Palestine solidarity during the protests of spring and summer 2021 was reminiscent of alliances on the anti-imperialist Left in the 1970s. On the other hand, Palestine solidarity today is also increasingly conditioned by the sensitivities fed by the IHRA definition of antisemitism. In the early 1970s, activists pulled no punches when they attacked Zionism. Reading their texts, which rarely if ever cross the line to antisemitism per se, it is almost as if the activists drew strength from the central and easily categorisable nature of Zionism. It provided a focal point for the thoughts and practices that activists struggled against and therefore gave them an easy frame of reference. In short, it made imperialism a concrete reality beyond just American military intervention. The internationalist, materialist reading lifted Zionism out of the problem space of the Jewish Question and sheltered the solidarity activists, so they thought, from allegations of antisemitism. Activists were encouraged by the broad vague of new Marxism making inroads in academia, writing, art, and popular culture.

A straight comparison between 1970 and today may be unjust. The international context was very different at the heigh of decolonisation which provided African, Latin American, Asian, and Middle Eastern nations leverage in international organisations, not least the UN. The push to connect Zionism with racism started in Palestinian groups but gathered momentum in coordination with the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. This campaign culminated in the 1975 UN General Assembly Resolution no. 3379 determining that “Zionism is a form of racism and racist discrimination”. Israel reacted furiously and proceeded to rename “The UN Avenue” in Haifa, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv “The Zionism Avenue”. Apart from Cyprus, no Western European country supported the resolution, which was later abandoned in 1991, after Israel made that a condition for participating in the Madrid peace conference. But the resolution shows that Third World solidarity including solidarity movements in the West and (at times) East Bloc countries provided a powerful counterpoint to Western hegemony. The remnants of these structures lived on after the end of the Cold War but provided much less diplomatic and economic clout. Instead of formalised partnerships between Palestinian parties, self-declared “progressive” states, and solidarity movements, Palestine solidarity had to reinvent itself in the form of the International Solidarity Movement and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions alliances between Palestinian and international grassroots organisations. The contemporary struggle over the definition of antisemitism must be seen in light of this altered balance of power which is related to geopolitical shifts and the transformation of Third Worldism after the end of the 1970s.[39]    

At the grassroot level, as this article has shown, the New Left played a central role in formulating a response to the charge of antisemitism. The transgression of accepted norms and the ability to stick it to ‘the man’ and bourgeois society was at the heart the New Left’s aesthetics and ideology. The fact that their Israel critique provoked the establishment as well as much of European society and ‘old Left’ parties like the Communist Party pleased activists in Denmark and elsewhere. Palestine activists did, however, also react to events and take sensibilities into consideration. In the summer of 1972, as Nils Vest was preparing to launch his first Palestine film, Denmark-Palestine – Same Struggle (1973), the Munich massacre took place. Most solidarity activists condemned the attacks, as did al-Fateh. But they did raise principal questions over the use of violence. The initial idea, Vest remembers, was to produce a poster that would illustrate “that Danes and Palestinians have a joint interest in fighting imperialism. [The art director] suggested a money bag wearing a top hat [symbolising capitalists] being attacked by armed men.” But after Munich happened, “we chose another poster with a less aggressive expression.”[40]

This kind of light editing was never enough to please their opponents. They wanted delegitimisation and, preferably, silencing. Sometimes they went further and tried to frame Palestine activists as antisemites. The wholesale attack on Zionism, which I have analysed in this article, provoked severe counterattacks. To Israel and its supporters, anti-Zionism represented a significant threat for several reasons. First, it created a conceptual focal point that tied in with the political agenda of Palestinian groups. Secondly, it tapped into the energies of anti-imperialism, Marxism, and youth rebellion. While those forces lost steam in the 1980s, the revanchist energy and organisation of hasbara only grew, powered by Israeli state funding. However, as Miriyam Aouragh has shown, the results are not always as intended, and the dialectics of denial and presence are often paradoxical. Arguments designed to undermine counterarguments can unintendedly back them up. A central claim of the IHRA definition is that there are antisemites hiding behind an anti-Zionist mask. But that argument seems to imply that anti-Zionism is not per se antisemitic and first must be de-masked or provoked to reveal its ‘true’ intentions. By focusing so intensely on anti-Zionism, its adversaries – whether it is Israeli interest organisations, the press, or security services – inadvertently shine light on the critique that they seek to conceal. Just as Zionism needs its other – antisemitism – to thrive,hasbara often destabilises Israel’s diplomacy by exposing settler colonialism.[41] Suppression of solidarity for Palestine stimulates criticism and may, in turn, help to shift public opinion. Looking back at the history of Palestine solidarity today on the backdrop of a bleak political reality of occupation, this dialectics of protest and propaganda may be the silver lining.


Aouragh, Miriyam. 2016. “Hasbara 2.0: Israel’s Public Diplomacy in the Digital Age,” Middle East Critique 25 (3), pp. 271-297.

Bashir, Bashir and Goldberg, Amos (eds.). 2019. The Holocaust and the Nakba – a New Grammar of Trauma and History. New York: Columbia University Press.

Bashkin, Orit. 2021. “The Colonized Semites and the Infectious Disease: Theorizing and Narrativizing Antisemitism in the Levant, 1870–1914.” Critical Inquiry 47 (2).

Bishuti, Bassam, 1969. The Role of The Zionist Terror in the Creation of Israel. Beirut: Palestine Research Center.

Boum, Aoumar and Abrevaya, Sarah (eds.). 2018. The Holocaust and North Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Fine, Robert and Spencer, Philip. 2017. Antisemitism and the Left - On the return of the Jewish question. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Gersoni, Israel. 2014. Arab Responses to Fascism and Nazism

Attraction and Repulsion. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Gillou, Jan, 2018. Den som dödar drömmar sover aldrig. Stockholm: Pirat Forlaget.

Haugbolle, Sune, and Rasmus Elling. 2023. “Introduction: The Transformation of Third Worldism in the Middle East. In The Fate of Third Worldism in the Middle East: Iran, Palestine, and beyond, edited by Elling and Haugbolle. London: Oneworld Academic, pp. 1-26.

Judaken, Jonathan. 2006. Jean-Paul Sartre and the Jewish Question. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.

Kyhn, Carsten and Höök, Steffen. 1978. En Undertrykt Sandhed (An Oppressed Truth).Copenhagen: Demos.

Levine, Mark. 2013. Impossible Peace: Israel and Palestine since 1989. London: Zed Books.

Mihr, Anja. 2017. “From Guilty Generation to Expert Generation? Personal Reflections on Second Post-war Generation West German Atonement,” in: Replicating Atonement: Foreign Models in the Commemoration of Atrocities, ed. Micha Gabowitsch. New York: Palgrave, pp. 305-323.

Rodinson, Maxime, 1981. “Antisémitisme éternel ou judéophobies multiples?,” in: Peuple juif ou problème juif? Paris: Maspero, pp. 265-327.

Sayigh, Fayez, 1965. Zionist Colonialism in Palestine. Beirut: PLO Research Center.

Sayigh, Fayez, 1969. The Zionist Diplomacy. Beirut: PLO Research Center.

Stevens, Richard P., 1969. Zionism, South Africa and Apartheid: The Paradoxical Triangle. Beirut: PLO Research Center.

Taylor, Alan R., 1974. The Zionist Mind. Beirut: The Institute for Palestine Studies.

White, Ben. 2020. “Delegitimizing Solidarity: Israel Smears Palestine Advocacy as Antisemitic,” Journal of Palestine Studies vol. 49 (2).

[1] Twenty-four interviews with former and current Palestine solidarity activists were carried out as part of the research project Entangled Histories of Palestine and the New Left, in Denmark and Norway between May 2018 and April 2021. I refer generally to the findings and to more specific interviews when necessary.

[2] Most importantly al-Fateh, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (later DFLP), Palestinian Workers Union and General Union for Palestinian Students.

[3] Chamberlin 2012.

[4] Building on previous existing spaces, such as Algiers, see Byrne 2016.

[5] Judaken 2006, pp. 7-18.

[6] Levine 2013.

[7] Interview with Morten Thing, November 2018.

[8]  Sayigh (1965), p. 51.

[9] Interview with Morten Thing, 17 November 2018.


[11] “Le Fath condamne l’antisémitisme”, Le Monde, 15 May, 1970.

[12] See the work of Orit Bashkin, in particular Bashkin 2021.

[13] “L'appel de Beyrouth condamne toutes les formes "explicites ou cachées" de l'antisémitisme,” Le Monde, 12 May 1970.

[14] White 2020.

[15] Said (1979), p. 8.

[16] Judaken 2006, p. 1-22; Fine and Spencer 2017.

[17] Tire and Spencer 2017, pp. 1-15.

[18] Achcar 2010, p. 39.

[19] Mihr, 2017.

[20] Taylor, 1974.

[21] Stevens, 1969.

[22] Sayigh, 1969.

[23] Bishuti, 1969.

[24] Achcar, 2010, p. 217.

[25] Ebbe Reich: “The Collective as a way of life”, Politisk Revy no. 35, June 1965 p. 9.

[26] Gershoni 2014; Boum and Stein 2018.

[27] Niels Frølich, ”Two books on Palestine”, Politisk Revy, July 1970, p. 3.

[28] Jacques Hersh, ”From antisemitism to Zionism, a Jewish tragedy”, Politisk Revy, July 1970, p. 13.

[29] Anni Kanafani, ”The fate of Palestine and its Future”, Politisk Revy, July 1970, p. 4.

[30] Bashir and Goldberg 2019.

[31]Falastin issue 1, 1970, p. 3.

[32] Lasse Ellegaard, ”Ja, jeg var agent for Mossad.” [Yes, I was a Mossad agent]. Interview with Herbert Pundik in the Danish newspaper Information, 27 February 2010.

[33] Lars Bonnevie’s speech at the Palestine Demonstration May 1971, Falastin 8, 1971, pp. 5-7.

[34]Falastin, special booklet, ”Zionism in Danish Schoolbooks – Solidarity with the Palestinian People,” 2nd edition 1974.

[35] Niels Vest quoted in Kyhn and Höök, 1975, p. 52.

[36] Ibid.

[37] The debate is documented and analyses in Kyhn and Höök 1978, pp. 54-95.

[38] ”Blekingegadebanden” – TV documentary in two parts aired on Danmarks Radio, March 2009.

[39] Haugbolle and Elling 2023, pp. 1-26.

[40] Niels Vest, 2015.,40aarefter.html

[41] Aouragh 2016.

Containing Muslims

Europe’s lower-strata working-class Muslims and the weaponisation of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia

Cihan Özpinar

With the elevation of Islamophobia to an alarming degree in Europe and beyond, and the pressing problems of Muslim immigrants and second- and subsequent-generation descendants of immigrants coming to occupy a central subject of debate, critical scholars of racism have drawn politically-relevant parallelisms between the historical ‘Jewish question’ and today’s ‘Muslim question’. On the one hand, some Marxists rose to the challenge of rereading Marx’s 1843 polemic Zur Judenfrage in the contemporary context, while drawing strategic implications for the pressing issues of today’s political and social crisis around Muslims.[1] On the other hand, such parallelisms entailed emphases on the similarities, or enabled comparisons, between antisemitism, as the discursive background of the Jewish question, and Islamophobia, as that of the Muslim question.[2] Other parallels were drawn between the successive shifts of the racialised populations, from the Eastern European Jews to the Muslims, who immigrated to countries such as France, formed the lower strata of the working class, and became subject to derogatory labels such as the métèque.[3] Scholars working in both Marxist and progressive traditions formulated, in different ways, the idea that modern nation-state, with its rigorous secularist and universalist claims (particularly in the French case), is generating the mechanisms for the discrimination and misrecognition of its ethnic or religious minorities. These minorities are increasingly racialised and gendered, as in the case of Muslim women’s veiling practices, vis-à-vis a supposedly integrated, culturally harmonious, if not homogenous, majority.[4] Moreover, there are important and dangerous parallels between the Jewish question and the Muslim question in the form of a wide range of conspiracy theories that are embedded in the Islamophobic discourse – just as those that could be found in the antisemitic discourse.[5] Resonating some of the conspiratorial elements of the ‘redemptive antisemitism’ that laid the ideological basis of Nazism,[6] today’s Islamophobic discourse relies on such scaremongering theories as ‘Eurabia’ and ‘great replacement’, and it is obsessed with the ‘demographic change’ that is taking place in the heart of the Western civilisation.[7]            

However, in order to avoid the pitfalls of quick analogies between the Jewish question and the Muslim question, one needs to take seriously the cautious standpoint of Enzo Traverso on the historical particularities of these two questions.[8] Instead, what I would like to do in this article is to analyse antisemitism and Islamophobia – the ideological backgrounds and discursive tools beneath these two questions – on new grounds, by focusing on how they are weaponised, and what effects such weaponisation produces, with a special emphasis on France. The framework of this article is bound to the following argument I advance: (i) the weaponisation of each discourse, itself understood as a discursive strategy, directly concerns Muslim immigrants and descendants of immigrants in the European, and particularly in the French, context; and(ii) the consequences of such discursive strategies, within a given structural framework, are articulated in what would be called the containment of the lower-strata working-class Muslims in Europe.


This piece is being made available as a preprint edition of the double-volume Marxism and the Critique of Antisemitism special issue of Historical Materialism. Further additions will still be made before then. The final published version of this text will be made available on the Brill website in the coming months. We ask that citations refer to the Brill edition.All Illustrations are by Natalia Podpora.


The argument

The weaponisation of antisemitism (see Section 1) and the weaponisation of Islamophobia (a counter-discourse that responds to Islamophobia, a racist discourse that bears racialising effects on Muslims – see Section 3) are two discursive strategies that follow two different logics and, accordingly, adopt two different discursive tactics (see Figure 1). The logic of the former discursive strategy amounts to upholding that a new form of antisemitism is endemic among Muslim communities, especially the youth, in Europe and beyond; it propagates that the anti-Zionist, anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist sentiments among them allegedly bear antisemitic elements. In order to legitimise imperialist policies in the neoliberal age, this strategy goes on to delineate between good and bad Muslims, and therefore de-essentialises them, while marginalising and isolating the lower-strata working-class Muslims – along with the anti-imperialist Left – by primarily identifying them with antisemitic tendencies. The logic of the latter discursive strategy amounts to upholding that the racialisation of Muslims in Europe through the racist discourse of Islamophobia, which requires a stronger unity of Muslims in organisation and collective action. For that aim, this strategyre-essentialises Muslims in order to give way to a Muslim identity-formation that is abstracted from the material differentiations within Muslim communities. The consequence is the blockage of channels for the lower-strata working-class Muslims’ from-below, democratic organising and the elite capture of politics.

Figure 1. Operational framework for the weaponisation of antisemitism and Islamophobia.

Discursive strategy

Discursive tactic

Mode of containment

Weaponisation of antisemitism


De-essentialisation: good vs. bad Muslims


Isolation of lower-strata working-class Muslims


Weaponisation of Islamophobia



class-indifferent Muslim identity

Elite capture of politics


However, the operational framework of the two discursive strategies is not self-sustaining. The many actors at work behind these strategies and the strategies themselves operate within a larger framework that involves political, economic and institutional structures stemming from social-property relations. As far as the agencies are concerned, each discourse is enabled, and their effects are realised within the restraints of these structures that pertain to the workings of a historically-specific phase of capitalism. In the weaponisation of antisemitism (see the sub-section of Section 1 below), the agency is carried by neoliberalism-embracing intellectuals who reflect the specifically neoliberal sketches of imperialism inscribed in the unilateralism of the US and its allies. These sketches are determined by the specific interests of certain fractions of the capitalist class in the US and elsewhere that are vested in militarism and global racism. Their implications correspond to the selectiveness of the European states vis-à-vis their Muslim communities under a neoliberal capitalism that is marked by political and economic structural changes. These changes include the retreat of the activist state and the long downturn in advanced capitalist economies.[9] In this schema, the discursive strategy carried by neoliberalism-embracing intellectuals – the weaponisation of antisemitism – bears legitimising effects on the existing neoliberal framework and enables such state policies as the equation of antisemitism and anti-Zionism. This in turn leads to, or intensifies, the isolation of the sections of the Muslim population in Europe who are opposed to imperialism and neoliberalism, along with the Left.

In the weaponisation of Islamophobia (see Section 4), agency is carried by multiple actors – including organisations and associations. Their discursive inputs for consolidating and fostering Muslims’ self-identification in religious, ethnic, and national terms (and stripped away from working-class identity) interact with the organisational and collective-action forms that encompass European Muslims (see Section 3). In this schema, Muslim identity-formation based on non-class identities – that the Muslims make sense of their social beings and the reality surrounding them in non-class terms – is not the result of such ideological persuasions. It is in fact the outcome of how these ideological persuasions are embedded within the existing structures that dominate Muslims’ social, cultural and political lives.[10] Such class-indifferent identity-formation and collective action in turn enables the tendential dynamics of elite capture due to the elite-controlled designs of the Muslim organisations and collective action.  Moreover, this hinders the reach of the power of the more democratic, from-below, grassroots organisations due to their lack of interest in building a working-class identity peculiar to Europe’s lower-strata working-class Muslims (see Section 4). The aggregate outcome of these two discursive strategies – isolation and elite capture – can therefore be understood as the ‘containment’ of lower-strata working-class Muslims’ potential to engage in democratic mass politics organised based on a working-class identity that is not colour-blind (see Conclusion).

In what follows, I will first provide the context for the theory of the ‘new’ antisemitism and its ramifications for European Muslims, particularly the youth. This is followed by a discussion on the theoretical, organisational, and strategic problems entailed by the weaponisation of ‘new’ antisemitism against Muslims. In Section 2, I will situate Islamophobia as a racist discourse and a form of social relation within the contemporary context. Emphasising the central role of the material structures in identity-formation processes, I will then go on to offer a tentative model of European Muslims’ organisational and collective-action forms with a particular focus on France in Section 3. In Section 4, I will discuss whether the counter-discourse of Islamophobia – its weaponisation – could be understood in terms of ‘elite capture’. Finally, I will conclude by describing the common effects of the both discourses in terms of a politics of containment that is effective on the lower-strata working-class Muslims.

The ‘new’ antisemitism and European Muslims

Muslims’ association with terror by right-wing media and neoliberalism-embracing intellectuals, and state measures taken against Muslim minorities in the West, have been accentuated with the declaration of the war on terror in early 2000s. This association went hand in hand with accusations towards Muslims, and especially Muslim youth, of an inherent antisemitism, allegedly displayed in their attitudes towards Jews in the West, and the Israeli state. France has been perhaps the most significant battleground for the neoliberalism-embracing public intellectuals’ attacks on younger generations with North African backgrounds, with charges of a ‘new’ antisemitism that is now reaching an alarming degree.[11] It is in this context that ‘the weaponisation of antisemitism’ has been effectively launched as a discursive strategy targeting both left-wing activism that protested Western aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Israeli aggression in Palestine, as well as Europe’s mostly younger-generation Muslims who identified themselves with the victims of these military operations in the greater Middle East. In the first half of the 2000s, different figures who adopted a neoliberal discourse fostered by the war on terror advanced the following arguments: a ‘new’ antisemitism was present especially in the French banlieues and among their young second-generation immigrants; with this new antisemitism, the security of French Jews was increasingly at risk; and this new antisemitism lay at the core of the anti-Israeli sentiments espoused by a new generation of Muslims in France and the Middle East.[12]

According to this logic, anti-Zionism, in the context of the Second Intifada and Israeli aggression, was nothing but a surrogate of this new antisemitism. Therefore, the criticism of Israel and the Zionist project had to be marginalised and criminalised. The discursive strategy developed out of this logic attempts to establish an equation between antisemitism and anti-Zionism through the critique of the Israeli state, which is defined as the outpost of Western civilisation and democracy in the middle of Middle Eastern autocracies. Combined with American unilateralism – particularly under the George W. Bush administration that adopted a similar civilisational discourse and launched a self-fashioned liberal-democracy crusade into the Middle East – the critique of Israel and US-led Western interventionism became synonymous with hostility to democracy in the wider neoliberalism-embracing intellectual milieus.[13] Moreover, Muslims in the West and elsewhere, as well as the now ‘outmoded’, ‘Third-Worldist’ left-wing critics of anti-imperialism, came to be designated what Liz Fekete has called ‘a suitable enemy’.[14]

Despite the common threads in the forms of Islamophobia and racialisation of Muslims, the discursive strategy behind Judeophilia and the designation of the concept of new antisemitism – the weaponisation of antisemitism – is, in relation to Europe’s Muslim population, qualitatively different from the far-right discourse that came to dominate and mobilise right-wing populisms in Europe in the second half of the 2010s. One important feature of the former should be acknowledged here. The weaponisation of antisemitism makes the strategic distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims, best formulated in the moderate vs. radical Islam classification, by producing discourses that follow along the lines: ‘not all Muslims are terrorists’, ‘not all Muslims are anti-democratic’ or ‘not all Muslims are anti-Western or anti-Israeli or anti-US’; and by appealing to the generic dictums such as Islam is a religion of peace, tolerance, etc.[15] This discursive tool enabled the US and its allies during the invasion of Iraq to further strengthen their alliances with such states as Turkey – a model for the Middle East’s decaying autocracies.[16] Thus, at the global level, the then-US president George W. Bush stated that ‘[t]he face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.’[17] Moreover, it was also a useful tool that worked for the Muslim population in Europe and the West – useful like a carrot for those willing to comply with the order of things, and like a stick for those unwilling. Thus, at the French national level, Alain Finkielkraut, one of the most hawkish supporters of the war on terror, cautioned that ‘But pay attention: this “us” is not only “us, the French”, “us, the Europeans”, not even “us, the Westerners”. This has to encompass equally the traditionalist moderate Muslims, the secular Muslims, the emancipated Muslim women, or those who aspire to be, as well as the Christians living on the Muslim soil.’[18]

Theoretical, strategic, and organisational questions

Within the workings of the theory of new antisemitism, there appear three major issues concerning theory, left-wing strategy and organisation. First is the question of agency. There is an intricate relation between ideology – the adoption of discursive strategies such as the weaponisation of antisemitism – and European states’ policy choices – assuming roles in the military incursions and containing contestation against these roles by adopting legal measures and policing. But what causal mechanisms lie behind this relation? A certain Marxist analysis of this neoliberalism-embedded new antisemitism theory puts a strong, and crucially important, emphasis on the agency of states in terms of their role in promoting the Jewish diaspora’s identity-formation and Jewish self-identification with the Israeli state.[19] Given the recent legal actions that equated antisemitism and anti-Zionism in France and the stretching of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism towards anti-Zionism in coordination with states, there is indeed an important state agency reflected in the implementation of such formulations and the socio-political impacts on those opposing them. This emphasis, however, seems to be dislocating the strategic locus of the mechanisms beneath the state-sponsored assaults on the Left and minorities by conflating the implementation of the premises of the ideological discourse on new antisemitism with the structural effects that created the conditions for such formulations in the first place.

My contention is that, to solve this puzzle, the emphasis should be shifted to the agency of the non-state actors (most notably, the neoliberalism-embedded discursive strategies undertaken by neoliberal intellectuals), whose ideological interventions bear legitimising effects on the policies and actions of states. In other words, the ideology beneath the theory of new antisemitism plays a mediating role between the two following factors: (i) fractions of the propertied classes whose vested interests lie heavily in military campaigns and global racism which give rise to American unilateralism in the first place, but also lead to other states bandwagoning with the latter;[20] (ii) individual capitalist states’ adoption of the racialising legal and political actions regarding their minorities – such as Muslims but also other communities of colour – and the contending Left. This ideology is structured in the wider context of a hegemonic neoliberalism to which its ideologues – the neoliberalism-embracing intellectuals – tune in their discursive strategies. The effects of this ideology, in turn, are realised in a way that legitimises actions of the states that take such political and legal measures – often conforming, and consolidating, their already embedded structural selectiveness, which is shaped on the bases of class composition and class struggle   encompassing their minorities and the Left.

The second major issue concerns the question of whether the theory and discourse of new antisemitism holds for realities on the ground that can be observed amongst both Muslim communities – especially the youth – and the Left in Europe. Is there any truth to the claims of a new antisemitism within these groups, or are they altogether fabricated? This question goes beyond the well-attested fact that the discourse of new antisemitism is indeed being used as a weapon directed particularly at Muslim youth and the Left, conforming to much of European states’ selectiveness-bias; its significance, as dangerous as it is, is somewhat exaggerated to the extent of scaremongering. In response to the question, some of the polemical work addressing the theory of new antisemitism tends to neglect any sort of antisemitism to be found among both Muslim communities and the Left.[21]Anthropological scholarship in the field confirms European Muslims’ self-identification with Palestinians and against Israel, and situates their anti-Jewish sentiments within that particular framework. It nevertheless does not neglect the prevalence of antisemitic elements among them, though correctly gives to it a significance proportionate to the reality.[22]

On the flip side, there lies the weaponisation of (new) antisemitism against the Left, particularly in the UK, during the period of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in the Labour Party (and in France with the right-wing discourse, also adopted by the neoliberal Macronists, which has prevailed in terms such as islamogauchisme). These assaults clearly bear the strategic implications of destabilising a revitalised Left that has begun truly contending neoliberalism. The question nonetheless remained of crucial importance: Does antisemitism exist within the ranks of the Left and Muslim communities who oppose the war on terror, and, if so, how to address it without risking the important task of criticising and opposing Western imperialism, Zionist colonialism, and the ongoing settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinemanu militari?

Such questions, and the explanations to tackle the issues raised by them, have led to stimulating exchanges of ideas within the Left today. On the one hand, the emphasis is placed on the actual persons ranking in left-wing organisations whose worldviews can easily fall prey to the traps of old antisemitic narratives while staunchly embracing anti-imperialist positions; on the other hand, the agency of the state that marginalises and helps liquidate the radical, non–colour blind Left is underlined.[23] In these exchanges, however, the complicated nexus of class–ideology–state seems to remain unaddressed. Different than the first major issue outlined above, here the nexus appears to be operating in the following mode: the lower strata of European working classes embodying much of immigrants and descendants of immigrants of Muslim backgrounds live through severe conditions of socio-economic insecurity, political misrepresentation and cultural misrecognition, which are in turn conditioned by European states’ structural selectiveness in an age of the global retreat of the ‘activist state’ and a ‘long downturn’ in the advanced capitalist economies. Under such conditions, the precarious position of these lower strata, increasingly subject to racialisation, paves the way for them to make sense of their social being based on their ethnic or religious identities and community bonds regulated through the organisations and networks that encompass Muslims. This further facilitates their self-identification with the oppressed people across the world, in particular with those whose associated identities, often expressed in political forms, match with theirs – as in the case of Palestinians. As the self-identification with the oppressed is realised in terms of ethnic or religious terms, the ethnic or religious identity of the oppressor – Jewishness of the Israeli state – becomes a substitute for the self-identifiers’ oppressor.[24] Moreover, this process of making sense of the oppressed of their social being may, though not necessarily, incorporate, with a sense of helplessness, the old anti-Jewish narrative that the super-powerful Jews, backed by superpower states, are waging a Judeo-Christian war – culturally, militarily or otherwise – on the oppressed Muslims worldwide and trans-historically.

This brings me to the third major issue. All this is not to claim that antisemitism, old or new, is endemic among the lower-strata working class Muslims and the non–colour blind Left. If there is any truth that antisemitism (or some of its components that stem from a one-sided interpretation of complex power relations) exists among the contenders of neoliberalism and the imperium, both among the Left and the lower-strata working-class Muslims, there arises a strategically-relevant question with implications for political education that needs to be taken seriously. My contention is that anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist positions make sense when imperialism and such settler-colonial practices as those taking place in Palestine are not only firmly, and necessarily, rooted in the logic of capital and the class relations it entails,[25] but also when their critique is related to the prospect that intends to abolish this logic and move towards human emancipation.

Short-sighted and one-sided positions of anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, and anti-colonialism are not only theoretically misleading, but also bear in strategic terms undermining effects on the possibilities of developing more mature, more effective forms of political organising and political education. As far as lower-strata working-class Muslims are concerned, who have been the target of the theory of new antisemitism, their self-identification in ethnic or religious terms with the oppressed and how they make sense of their social beings render them susceptible to a partial and deficient understanding of capital, imperial domination, and settler expansion. To this their response develops accordingly. The claims under the theory of new antisemitism suggesting that there is an increasing antisemitism among the lower-strata working-class Muslims bear effects on these Muslims’ isolation and marginalisation from the rest of the society; they function as constant pressures that seek to prevent meaningful ways for these Muslims to confront imperialism. Moreover, the favourable conditions that can – and do – give rise to anti-Jewish sentiments are also obstructing the possible channels through which they could develop forms of organisation that would tackle not only Zionist aggression and Western imperialism but the very conditions they suffer in Europe and elsewhere, because opposition to Zionism and imperialism can, and sometimes does, translate into such anti-Jewish sentiments.

In this section, I discussed how the theory and discourse of new antisemitism, advanced by the intellectuals whose aggregate efforts serve to legitimise neoliberal policies on national-political and geopolitical levels, seeks to undermine the legitimacy and credibility of the critiques of imperialism and colonialism, as seen in US unilateralism and Israeli occupation of Palestine, respectively. This theory and discourse operates in ways exaggerating to the level of scaremongering the antisemitism in Europe’s Muslim youth, as well as in anti-imperialist Left, in order to marginalise the critics of imperialism and therefore isolate them. It is true, of course, that those in Europe’s Muslim youth and anti-imperialist left are not immune to antisemitism. As such, this poses serious dangers for a better understanding of the workings of global capitalism, which would otherwise be conceived one-sidedly and lead to lack of understanding why and how imperialism and colonialism are beneficial to the propertied classes in the neoliberal era. Therefore, both as a weapon and the symptom of the fetishistic conception of capital and power, antisemitism functions in the containment of lower-strata working-class Muslims in Europe.

In the remaining part of this article, I will offer an analysis in which ways the weaponisation of Islamophobia operate within the structural framework of Muslim political lives. But before that, a materialist understanding of Islamophobia as a racist discourse and a form of ‘social relation’ requires elaboration. 

Islamophobia and ‘racism as social relation’

The last two and a half decades have seen a dramatic increase in Europe and the US of anti-Muslim sentiments due to an association of Muslims with different forms of violence – jihad, terror, the autocratic tendencies of the regimes in Muslim-majority countries threatening the non-Muslim minorities, as well as patriarchal/macho violence against women and LGBTQ+ people. This has been propagated by mass media and the politicians and pundits ranging from right-wing to centre-left, which has resulted in the racialisation of Muslims, and made them subjects of an increasing prejudice based on their religious, ‘ethnic’ and cultural identities. In the political and scholarly lexicon, such sentiments have come to be dominantly described under the term Islamophobia. Although initially resisted by some scholars on the basis that Islam, a religion, would have nothing to do with ‘race’, meaning that Islamophobia would not be an apt way of describing what Muslims experience,[26] those who insisted on the specific racialisation of Muslims in the western world due to their affiliation with Islam, along the lines of what Stuart Hall called ‘race as a sliding signifier’,[27] made the strong case of conceiving Islamophobia as a form of racism[28] – or, in Brian Klug’s words, the concept came of age.[29] The racialisation of Muslims, incorporated into the European states’ structural selectiveness, has increasingly translated into the creation of a specific form of racism as a social relation of domination and power. This form surpasses its ideological and discursive boundaries and conforms to the framework, suggested by David Camfield, that stems from the existing forms of social-property relations which not only favour conditions of profitability for capital and imperialist domination,[30] but also create differential patterns of generational social reproduction along the lines of race, ethnicity and religious affiliation.[31] In turn, anti-Muslim racism operates among the segments of the white working class in ways in which Muslims are perceived to benefit from welfare-state provisions in domains such as housing much more generously than they do, therefore bolstering the racial divides within lower classes and consolidating what is often called ‘racial capitalism’.[32] In other words, racist ideology and discourse becomes a surrogate for the continued interests vested in the existing forms of social and economic inequalities that benefit even socio-economically disadvantaged people.

Despite such evident connections, Camfield’s model is useful in distinguishing the structuralised race relations that subordinate Muslims to racism as a system of social relations from the Islamophobic discourse and ideology. Whereas the ‘racism-as-social-relation’ theory provides room for analysing the inner differentiation dynamics within racialised peoples and communities on a materialist basis and in a non-essentialising manner, the ‘racism-as-discourse’ theory tends to treat the racialising effects of a racist discourse and ideology like Islamophobia in a way that essentialises Muslims as a monolithic category with an indifference to the multiple divisions – most notably, class divisions – running through them. This latter, I argue, is the critical node in which the uses of Islamophobia can become a tool for subjectivising the Muslims based on their religious-cum-ethnic identities while concealing these divisions.

The causal mechanism in this process of subjectivation through Muslims’ identity-formation in relation to their religious and ethnic identities needs elaboration, however. My argument here is not that Islamophobia-as-racism as a counter-weapon is used and directed by multiple actors on the ground against the bearers of the Islamophobic discourse that subjectivises Muslims. Otherwise put, it is not a counter-discursive strategy that leads to the Muslim self-identification in religious and ethnic terms. What I argue instead is that the effects of this essentialising counter-discourse on identity come into play with the existing framework of social-property relations as well as the organisational and collective-action forms that encompass Muslims’ social, cultural, and political lives. It is essentially these material structures through which Muslims, like any other group of people, make sense of the meaning of their conditions in religious and ethnic terms, since these structures are formed along these very lines.

As a discursive counter-strategy, the use of Islamophobia in the critique of Islamophobic racism, by espousing the notion that the racialisation of Muslims takes place in such a totalising way that it leaves intra-community differences aside and renders them invisible, consolidates the existing structures of organisation and collective action and further contributes to Muslims’ identity-formation and subjectivation within the confines of these structures rather than launching subjectivation processes that could lead to new forms of identity-formation. Therefore, the ‘class-blind’ formulations of Islamophobia without addressing the structural framework which encompasses many of the Muslims of the lower-strata working class might in fact strengthen this framework. Moreover, insofar as these structures remain intact and even consolidated, such formulations might rather serve as a weapon that obstructs the channels for lower-strata working-class Muslims’ new forms of organisation and collective action that are more democratic, ‘from below’, and more efficient in contesting and transforming the material conditions of racism as a system of social relation.

The causal mechanism I suggested above operates within the framework of what I outlined in the three organisational and collective-action forms that encompass European Muslims’ political, religious, and cultural lives. This brings me to the following question that concerns the interlocking material structures (organisational and collective-action forms) stemming from social-property relations and ideology. These material structures are either elite-biased due to their designs or insufficient in so far as mobilising lower-strata working class Muslims in collective-action forms through which they would not surmount the class hierarchies within Muslim communities themselves. Therefore, in what terms would the effects of the ideological and discursive roles played by the weaponisation of Islamophobia – essentialising Muslims and remaining indifferent to class boundaries – be realised?

In order to answer this question, one needs to first analyse the structural framework of the Muslims’ political lives in Europe. The structures of organisational and collective-action forms in which Muslims’ majority engage today, I suggest, provide the key to understanding how the counter-discourse on Islamophobia developed within Muslims would lay the ground for its weaponisation.

European Muslims and organisational and collective-action form

If Muslim population’s, especially its youth’s, self-identification with the Palestinian cause particularly through an adoption of an identity-formation on the basis of ethnic, national and religious terms, it would be useful here to elaborate on the forms of organisation and collective action into which the European Muslims are incorporated in order to have a better grasp of how the counter-discourse on Islamophobia is related to the social and associational structures stemming from social-property relations. Taking France as the main country of focus, I will suggest three main forms that characterise Muslim organisation and collective action:[33] (i) elite-controlled vertical organisations; (ii) elite-controlled networks; (iii) grassroots organisations.[34]

Elite-controlled vertical organisations

In France, prior to the 1980s, a considerable part of Muslim organising concerned Muslim immigrant workers’ religious and cultural identities, alongside their working-class identities. Two main problems surfaced since the beginnings of the immigration from Muslim-majority countries to Europe:[35] (i) from the perspective of the receiving states, it was the problem of ‘governing Islam’ under circumstances where European states had little to no expertise and resources of their own to address the fundamental cultural and social needs of the Muslims in their countries – such as religious rituals, funeral services or meals in the workplace; (ii) from the perspective of the home states, it was both ‘governing Islam abroad’ and the concerns about their citizens’ activities abroad, especially political activities, in the countries to which they had emigrated.[36] 

Against the background of economic stagnation, subsequent increasingly high levels of unemployment and the weakening power of working-class organisations, the second-generation Muslims, mostly born and raised in France, have been very precariously integrated into economic life. Since the 1980s, this has resulted in the shifting ways in which Muslims, along generational lines, make sense of their social beings and reality, moving away from working-class identities and increasingly towards ethnic, cultural and religious identities.[37] By the 1980s, organisational efforts around Muslim identity began to intensify, especially under the strong influence of the Muslim Brotherhood ideology and with the financial support of Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These efforts culminated in the creation of umbrella organisations such as Union des Organisations Islamiques en France, which then led to mirror developments, such as the co-optation of pre-existing organisations by home states, as in the case of the Fédération Nationale des Musulmans de France (FNMF) and Morocco, alongside the French state’s own efforts to bring together these Muslim associations within one ostensibly representative national body with strong connections to the French state. These efforts have represented France’s own vision to create an official ‘French Islam’ and reduce the transnational character of Muslim French identities, which in some cases have become even more transnational due to French Muslim associations’ dependency on the financial and ideological resources of Muslim countries around the Mediterranean and in the Gulf.[38]

The central role of the institutions established in order to address these problems and to govern Islam and Muslims made holding strong ties to both home states and France a prerequisite and necessary at the same time, which in turn required them to be structurally designed as what I call elite-controlled vertical organisations.

Elite-controlled networks

European Muslims’ increasing self-identification in ethnic, national and religious terms corresponded to a proliferation of associations and ‘networks’ organised around such identities in the 1980s. Against the background of the increasing influence of the so-called ‘Islamic revival’ in Muslim-majority countries in the 1970s onwards, religious movements such as Tablighi Jamaat began to find fertile ground for their proselytist activities in the Muslim-populated working-class neighbourhoods in French suburbs in the late 1970s and early 1980s.[39] In Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere, the Turkish political-Islamist Milli Görüş community or religious congregational groups such as the Süleymancılar similarly expanded their networks within local Muslim communities under the guidance of spiritual or politico-religious (or, in the case of Gülenists, both) leaders, and the auspices of local notables.[40]

Although the nature of such forms of congregational and politico-religious organising is loose due to their network character – in the sense that congregation attendees, mere members or ‘sympathisers’ are subject not to strictly-defined associational rules under accountable check-and-balance mechanisms, but rather to non-written mores and customs – these networks are firmly controlled by the network elites and reflect the rigid hierarchies that subordinate the rank and file to the leaders and notables. They are not only in charge of providing charity and provisions to the poor, whose loyalties in turn consolidate their social basis, but they also function as channels for essential aspects of everyday and socio-economic life such as job-finding or house-searching.[41] Therefore, the logic of this form of organising operates firmly within the workings of civil society, somewhat distanced from the state (whose selectiveness already ignores the rank and file), which in turn brings about, at the same time, both class hierarchies and their immediate concealment through the adherents’ narrower self-identification with the network and wider self-identification in ethnic, national and religious terms.

Grassroots organisations

Not all forms of Muslim organising retain religious identity stricto sensu, and since early 1960s, such organisations as the Association des Marocains en France (1961) or, later, the Mouvement des Travailleurs Arabes (1972) have organised Muslims based on working-class identity and around left-wing causes.[42] Given their members’ guest-worker status, the social power of these earlier organisations had been limited by two factors due to citizenship: the fragile position vis-à-vis the French state; and the threat perceived by the home states due to their ‘undesired’ political activities, which could pose several problems back in the home countries.

Demarcating these earlier, first-generation immigrants’ grassroots organisations from the second generation–led grassroots organisations is important in terms of their organisational capacities stemming from their social power. In the former, this capacity was delimited by the legal framework of the rank and file’s citizenship and guest-worker status and the double bind between home and receiving states. In the latter, their organisational capacity was delimited by the grassroots organisations’ growing disconnection from the forms of collective action based on class power. This latter was due to structural socio-economic changes related to post-crisis capitalist restructuration, deindustrialisation, the increasing levels of unemployment that have set additional barriers to second-generation Muslims’ incorporation into the economy, the changing labour regime and the problems tied to organised labour ­­– all in the context of the ‘long downturn’ in advanced capitalist economies.[43] Therefore, the focus of the second-generation Muslim grassroots organisations moved, or had to move, away from class identity to non-class identities largely because of these structural effects. Important as they are, the significant weakness of these struggles is that, within their scopes, collective action does not exact the social power which, counterfactually, could have been obtained by class power in different structural circumstances or by the creation of new forms of labour organising and mobilisation of workers under elevated precarious working conditions.

Two moments are of crucial importance for the grassroots organisations of the descendants of Muslim immigrants in the post-1980s. First, in the period that Gilles Kepel has called the ‘Islam of the youth’ during anti-globalisation protests and in the context of war on terror, Muslim descendants of immigrants, disillusioned by the previous generation’s Ikhwanism that had been hegemonic with the previous generation in the 1980s and 1990s, sought ways of subjectivation detached from the ‘elite-controlled vertical organisations’. One of the primary ways was by becoming involved in the alter-globalisation movement through Attac in France and through other organisations elsewhere, all the while retaining a certain degree of self-identification in Islamic terms but associating this religious identity with left-wing causes such as anti-capitalism, anti-globalisation and anti-imperialism, and seeking alliances in the non–colour blind Left.[44] In France, such attempts were met with typically non-constructive class-reductionist responses from a reluctant Left – with important exceptions such as certain segments within the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (later, Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste) – and did not succeed in forming solid alliances whereas, in Britain, a weaker Muslim rank-and-file mobilisation has succeeded in forming alliances with the Left within the Stop the War Coalition and Globalise Resistance,[45] as well as the solidarity in challenging the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy, Prevent, albeit with increasing fragilities.[46]

Despite the differences in the attitudes of the Left on both sides of the Channel,[47] the net effect of such attempts on forming alliances remained minimal in both cases. Moreover, the ideological motivations behind these attempts, along with the associational power of the organisations involved in such causes, in terms of the lack of mobilising a working class–led mass movement, remained problematic in view of these movements’ engagement with the very objects of their analyses. First of these problems is the treating of global capitalism one-sidedly through opposition to global trade and financial power, which is understood in terms of a hegemonic US or Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism and the perspective that this model could be confronted with a counter-hegemonic one.[48] The second is the ‘avoid[ing]’, in the words of Marcos Ancelovici, of ‘old themes of the Left, such as the class struggle’, and the ‘stress [on] the inclusive identity of the citizen’, as in the case of ATTAC France.[49] Finally, the confrontation to contemporary imperialism was often reduced to anti-Americanism and opposition to other US allies such as Israel, but not as part of the global economic architecture of capitalism.[50] The dislocation of the working class from the centre of political organising and mass mobilisation in these movements in turn delimited Muslim grassroots organisations’ potential attempts to bridge the gaps between class and non-class identities, and instead left the necessary correlation between class inequalities and non-class inequalities largely unestablished while focusing overly on the latter.

Second, in the wake of failed alliances between Muslim grassroots organisations and the Left and the banlieue riots of Fall 2005, the foundation of the Indigènes de la République (PIR – first movement, then party) in 2005 following and transcending the earlier efforts of neighbourhood and community organising by establishing a political organisation of the cadres has been one of the most significant developments that involved Muslim organising, along with other people of colour.[51] The Indigènes rejected the elite-controlled vertical organisations’ hegemony and their co-optation by both the French state and the states of the ostensible ‘countries of origin’; they defended and proclaimed the prospect of a youth who rejected the Ikhwanist UOIF’s infamous fatwa that forbade the 2005 riots; and they developed an organisational model that aspired to go beyond the religious confines of the elite-controlled networks and empower the rank and file. Ideologically committed to anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism, and theoretically drawing on postcolonial studies and critical race theory with strong influences from figures of anti-colonial struggle and the black liberation movements such as Frantz Fanon, Angela Davis and Malcolm X, they defended a political line that underlined the urgent necessity of decolonising the Republic’s indigènes at the heart of the metropole.[52] Their political commitment pointed out the intrinsic relation of class exploitation and non-class, particularly racial, forms of domination – though often overemphasising the latter and underemphasising the former.[53]

From the outset, their analysis of the French state and society – a white colonial society that is sustained by a whites-only political sphere and a colour-blind republican model, which, under its Fifth Republican period, was formed upon a ‘colonial counter-revolution’[54] – informed the following political strategy they adopted: if racism and white supremacy is institutionalised in the current French model, then, for a decolonial project, it becomes necessary to reform or transform these institutions in the first place insofar as a new model would establish the conditions for an autonomous indigène political, cultural, and of course religious life to flourish.[55] The Indigènes’ clear prioritisation of the liberation of ‘social races’ in their political agenda before other forms of oppression and exploitation apparently delimited alliances with an already reluctant, crude class-reductionist Left; but more importantly, their negligence of forming a working-class identity peculiar to the indigènes, and their lack of interest in mobilising theindigène sections of the working class as such, hindered the reach of the influence and effects of their collective action and confined it to the limits of non-class identities, especially ‘social race’.

Above, I analysed the structural framework of the Muslim political life with a particular focus on France. I argued the collective-action and organisational forms that encompass Muslims create certain deficits that hinder the prospects of more democratic, class-based organisations in which lower-strata working-class Muslims could have been more empowered. In the next section, I will describe and discuss the effects of the weaponisation of Islamophobia which plays a mediating role within this structural framework.

Elite capture?

The notion of ‘elite capture’ is a useful term to analyse and describe such effects. Stemming from developmental economics and sociology in the context of foreign aid to Global South communities, the term describes how individuals with disproportionately more access to power benefit from such allocations for their own interests instead of the common interests of the community and the interests of those with little to no access to power. In recent years, the term has become more frequent in political analyses. Most notably, its use by those involved in critical social theory has reformulated the term as a concept to grasp the ‘unintended’ consequences of emancipatory movements organised around race, gender or sexuality that come about when those with more access to power structures among oppressed communities end up benefiting disproportionately more from these emancipatory movements, consolidating, and often strengthening, their positions by the virtue of collective struggles and organisations.[56]

That elite capture is a general feature of politics is particularly related to the designs of the organisations and associations that mobilise their adherents or members. Where there is a lack of democratic design and participation, these organisations and associations tend to consolidate the existing patterns of inequalities, especially across class lines, eventually obstructing and weakening democracy that is detrimental for maintaining both racial and other non-class forms of justice as well as socio-economic equality.[57] In this scheme, discursive inputs mobilised through the notions that pertain to the oppression of unprivileged and disadvantageous groups, organised around race, gender, class or some ‘intersection’ thereof, become effective within the structural framework of organisational and collective-action forms, thus enabling the elite capture of politics. The same scheme also applies for Muslim organisations and politics when the counter-discourse of Islamophobia is mobilised in the essentialising, non–class specific ways that result in different ways of elite capture. This can be observed most obviously in the elite-controlled models of organisation and collective action: both elite-controlled vertical organisations and elite-controlled networks are structurally lacking democratic participation and decision-making as they are designed in a ‘top-down’ fashion in the first place and, particularly in the case of networks, they operate specifically in the mere sphere of civil society that is dominated by the intertwined economic and religious lives of the Muslims. The role of Islamophobia as a weaponised, counter-discursive strategy in relation to Muslims’ identity-formation processes based on religion is, therefore, structurally biased towards reinforcing the elite-controlled designs and securing elite capture.

A more complex situation occurs in the case of grassroots organisations. In these grassroots organisations, channels for the democratic participation of the rank and file and their involvement in decision-making processes are not absent since their designs involve ‘from-below’ participatory mechanisms. Therefore, they are less prone to elite capture of politics than the elite-controlled models of organisation and collective action. However, as discussed above, the limited reach and impact of the grassroots organisations’ collective action due to lack of interest in forming a working-class identity peculiar to lower-strata working-class Muslims renders them susceptible to remaining within the confines of a politics revolving around non-class forms of identity. This prioritises the struggles against non-class forms of oppression which, in effect, bear the marks of class-determining socio-economic inequalities that run through the very identity group at stake. Prioritisation of racial or racialised religious identities over class, therefore, enables concealing the class differentiations that cut across non-class identities, consequently laying the groundwork for elite capture against the grain of the democratic designs of their organisational and collective-action forms.

An illustrative example can be found in the work of Sadri Khiari, who played a substantial role in the foundation and development of the PIR. In his most important book, for example, he holds that ‘a Muslim indigène voting in the local elections for a Sarkozyst candidate who promises to construct a mosque is much more of a problem for the Republic compared to a secularindigène voting in the legislative elections for socialists with the hope that they raise wages. … [The two parties] take parts in the White Power; with sometimes differing strategies, they aspire to break our resistance and instrumentalise us in the competition in which they oppose each other.What I want to untangle is how a politics of the indigènes takes form through contradictory, and sometimes aberrant, mediations.’[58] What is problematic in these arguments put forth by Khiari is not this or that right-wing party or candidate could be tactically seen an alternative to Socialist Party. The logic behind Khiari’s argument relies on a certain reading of world capitalism and modern racism, and this is the source what makes his account problematic.

The kind of decolonial project the Indigènes pursue assumes that, if capitalism existed before colonialism, it could not have developed fully fledgedwithout the colonial expansion and the entailing modern racism, which first came ‘in 1492, and again in 1830’.[59] We therefore have ‘modernity’ as an encompassing system, with its institutions and ideologies such as nation-states, universalism and Enlightenment – all structuring the societies from early modernity onwards due to that civilisational logic and the structural racism that is operating at levels ranging from local to global wherever colonialism reaches. This leaves the agential role of social classes to an inconsequential, exiguous level, divorced from the structuration effects of the development of capitalism on a global scale. In this interpretation, Khiari, drawing on an anti-statist methodology that is informed by postmodernist critiques of the state, formulates an opposition between the politics of the Indigènes and the ‘universalist’, ‘centralist’, ‘secular’ nation-state in a postcolonial setting. It is by this opposition that any development capable of undermining the logic of the modern nation-state – therefore its inherent colonialist, racist and (equivocally) capitalist character – becomes favourable to endorse the ‘lesser-evil’ political choices.

He notes, for example, how Muslim organisations formed along the lines of what I called ‘elite-controlled vertical organisations’, despite their collaborationism with the French state, as well as the ‘home states’, and their functioning in the immediate setbacks of the decolonial agenda, play a positive role in furthering the ‘expansion’ of Islam in the midst of the postcolonial metropole, in an implicitly dialectical way.[60] Therefore, according to Khiari’s logic, ‘through contradictory, and sometimes aberrant, mediations’, elite forms of politics could be more beneficial to such radical agendas as decolonisation. In Khiari and other Indigène theorists and activists there is perhaps no lack of structural interpretation of existing inequalities along racial and class lines; but the lack of accounting for economic structures, socio-economic transformations and entailing class composition that results in the depiction of figures such as François Bayrou or a Sarkozyst candidate as lesser evils,[61] or furthermore, attributing positive roles to elite-controlled vertical organisations or networks, could be considered a way of justification of a particular form of elite capture of politics.

Such examples could be multiplied; what, however, can be deduced from such instances is that elite capture of politics, in the case of French Muslims and possibly others, is not necessarily an absolute victory of the elites but rather a tendential dynamic that benefit the elites as a result of the existing organisational and collective-action forms. Therefore, despite such perils, there is also a large room for political education and strategic thinking towards a more sustained integration of racially-marginalised people into class-centred left-wing organisations. Yet the negligence of complex causal mechanisms that relate class exploitation to racial oppression, whose intricacies become more discernable in the historiographical identification of modernity and capitalism, would lead to erroneous political positions informed by inadequate theory.

Conclusion: Containing Muslims

If elite capture is a tendential dynamic from which the elites can benefit, it could be maintained as a result of blocking the channels that favours grassroots, democratic participation of the Muslim rank and file within political processes in general, and subordinating them to organisational structures in which either they have little to no power (as in the cases of elite-controlled vertical organisations and networks), or in which the differential class locations are relegated to an inconsequential level (grassroots organisations). Borrowing from the political-history lexicon, and from the work of Arno J. Mayer,[62] this sort of blockage could be understood in terms of ‘containment’. In Mayer’s work, containment appears in the framework of categories such as ‘conservative’, ‘reactionary’ and ‘counterrevolutionary’ in the context of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European political history, and it relates to the containment of democratic mass politics – in contradistinction to mass politics in the wider sense – so as to include not only revolutionary but also reformist elements.[63] Adopting this framework, it becomes possible to conclude that the obstruction and blockage of the means for European Muslims’ democratic mass politics, through the interplay of delimitations brought about by elite-controlled structures and the indifference or neglect of underlying intra-community inequalities such as class, which in turn leads to the tendential dynamics of elite capture, produces the containment of lower-strata working-class Muslims.

The two discursive strategies I have focused on – the weaponisation of antisemitism and the weaponisation of Islamophobia (or, what I alternatively termed the counter-discourse of Islamophobia) – become effective in this politics of containment in two different ways that are often competing but somewhat complementary. This paper discussed the following: the weaponisation of antisemitism, as borne by neoliberalism-embracing intellectuals, suggests that antisemitism is a feature of some parts of Muslim communities that are deeply immersed in Islamic fundamentalism by delineating goodvs. bad Muslims, and thus following the tactic ofde-essentialising Muslims. Its ultimate goal is the isolation of Muslims and the anti-imperialist Left wary of and opposed to the ongoing politics of military aggression in the Middle East perpetrated by the US and the Israeli state. Such a strategy and tactics conform to the neoliberal logic of the ‘war on terror’ as represented by the imperialist policies of US-led interventionism and unilateralism (garnering support even from such states as France, with more autonomously-pursued foreign policies traditionally but over time during the two decades from 2000s onwards aligning with pro-US and pro-NATO positions, albeit with usual tensions). This goal of isolation is reflected in the structural selectiveness of the European states that are visibly less affirmative towards their minorities after long periods of neoliberal transformation. Moreover, despite several common threads such as the racialising Islamophobic discourse, just like the differences between conservatives and reactionaries, they should be considered differently from those adopted by the new right-wing populisms – mobilising anti-democratic mass politics as a revolt to the centrist establishments – which essentialise Muslims in reference to a supposedly monolithic ‘Islamic’ culture and religion. This is best exemplified by the parties such as, Partij voor de Vrijheid,Alternative für Deutschland or Le Front/Rassemblement National. The weaponisation of Islamophobia, on the other hand, seeks tore-essentialise Muslims through discursive means by concealing the class differences and inequalities within Muslim communities and building an identity-formation detached from working-class identity. This counter-discursive strategy does not build such an identity-formation through its own capacity, but it becomes enabled by the structural framework of organisational and collective-action forms that encompass European Muslims, and through which they make sense of their social beings and reality surrounding them. Whereas elite-controlled structures, in particular networks, provide especially the Muslim lower-strata working class with several means of subsistence, safety nets, and even job access in a top-down fashion, thus consolidating and strengthening their structural designs under the control of the elites through Muslims’ identity-formation along non-class (ethnic, national and/or religious) lines, democratically-designed grassroots organisations’ negligence of, or indifference to, forming working-class identities hinders the reach of power stemming from their organisations while enacting the tendential dynamics of elite capture. In short, this paper has argued that the comparison of antisemitism and Islamophobia could be best captured in their weaponisation which, starting from very different premises, ends up with the same consequence: the containment of the lower-strata working class Muslims.


The author gratefully acknowledges the comments, criticisms, and suggestions from Benjamin Bruce and Cemil Yıldızcan. Also, many thanks to Jack Boas, Ali Yalçın Göymen, Maral Jefroudi, Omar Refaat, Omar Sadik, Sinem Uz, and Halil İbrahim Yenigün for their helpful comments on the various drafts of this paper. I greatly benefited from the detailed comments and suggestions from the three referees, as well as those from the Special Issue editors, Sai Englert and Alex de Jong. I also wish to acknowledge the support of Priya Kapoor and Leopoldo Rodriguez in International & Global Studies Department at Portland State University which helped me keep on researching and writing. The usual disclaimers apply.


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[1] Kouvélakis 2005; Farris 2014.

[2] Meer and Modood 2009; Meer and Modood 2012; Klug 2014; Zia-Ebrahimi 2018; Bracke and Hernández Aguilar 2020. Also see: Said 2003, for the parallelism between antisemitism and Orientalism, as a precursor to Islamophobia.

[3] Badiou and Hazan 2013.

[4] On the notion of continuity from the Jewish to the Muslim question in European context, formulated as the ‘European question’, see: Anidjar 2012, De Genova 2018; on the gendered racialisation of Muslim women in Europe, see: Scott 2007, Delphy 2015; Farris 2017; on the race–class–gender nexus in the Muslim question, see: Farris 2015.

[5] Zia-Ebrahimi 2018; Bracke and Hernández Aguilar 2020.

[6] Friedländer 1997; Mayer 1988.

[7]For the great replacement theory, see: Camus 2011. For a ‘mainstream’ version of this account, see: Caldwell 2010.

[8] Traverso 2019, pp. 74–5.

[9] I will refer here only to a select number of authors who have addressed these notions. For capitalist state selectiveness, see: Offe 1974; for the retreat of the activist state, see: Fung and Wright 2001; for the theory of long downturn, see: Brenner 2006.

[10] For this materialist framework of identity-formation, I draw on Chibber 2017, 2022. My understanding of the workings of ideology and discourse is partly informed by Therborn 1980.

[11] Pascal Boniface (2014) calls the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the major geopolitical issue that makes the French society ‘sick’. Also see: Boniface 2017.

[12] Brenner 2002; Taguieff 2002, 2004; Finkielkraut 2003; Lévy 2004; Weill 2004.

[13] For a critique of the extended version of hostility to democracy equated to opposing American unilateralism, see Segré 2013, chap. 1.

[14] Fekete 2009.

[15] Mamdani 2004.

[16] Tuğal 2007; Tuğal 2012.

[17] Bush 2001.

[18] Finkielkraut 2006. (Emphasis and translation mine.)

[19] Englert 2018.

[20]The particular interests of these other countries’ propertied classes, often invested in reviving old colonial ventures, pressure to shift their states’ policy choices towards alignment in the midst of sometimes fierce inter-elite political rivalries. This could be observed in France between the pro-NATO positions and the Gaullist legacy. Ostermann 2019; Rieker 2017; Banégas 2014.

[21] Badiou and Hazan 2013; Segré 2013.

[22] Silverstein 2008; Peace 2009.

[23] The debate in the pages of Salvage magazine between Barnaby Raine and Sai Englert is an illustrative example. See: Raine 2019 and Raine 2021 for the first position; Englert 2019 for the second.

[24] This should not be understood as that religion is the most important factor in the self-identification of the Muslims. Maxwell and Bleich (2014), drawing on the 2008­–9 Trajectoires et Origines survey (Beauchemin, Hamel and Simon 2015), make a compelling case that, regarding the entirety of the Muslim population in France, religious self-identification does not present an accurate picture.

[25] Englert 2020. Halliday 1999; Miles and Brown 2003.

[26] Halliday 1999; Miles and Brown 2003.

[27] Hall 2017.

[28] Meer and Modood 2012; Opratko 2017.

[29] Klug 2012.

[30] Camfield 2016.

[31] In a working-paper presented earlier I try to offer an analysis of the outcomes of a such structural-selectiveness on the differential patterns of generational reproduction among immigrant communities in France, by drawing on the 2008–9 TeO survey. See: Özpınar 2021.

[32] Ali and Whitham 2021.

[33] Here and in the following sections, I use Muslim organisation/organising as a practical term to describe the organisational and collective-action forms that encompass Muslims, who are designated as such due not to a religious identity on the basis of one of many interpretations of Islam, but to the racialisation of a sociological group that involves even those who do not associate themselves with any interpretation of Islam.

[34] This tentative taxonomy is informed partly by Frégosi 2013; however, Frégosi’s model essentially draws on Muslim organisations’ relation to religion and excludes the class aspect from the picture. Parvez 2013, 2017, on the other hand, provides crucial insights for a class-based model, though she does not go on to offer one. I am loosely drawing on these works for my own purposes in this section.

[35] For the history of immigration to France from its former colonies and elsewhere, see: Sayad 1977; Noiriel 1988.

[36]Despite this very important transnational dynamic at play in the Muslim organisations in Western Europe, out of which it could be deduced that elite-controlled vertical organisations are a function of home and receiving states’ policy concerns of governing Islam, the purposes of this article have to leave its concrete analysis out of the scope. For a fuller analysis, see: Bruce 2019.

[37] Kepel 2012, pp. 150–2.

[38] Bruce 2019.

[39] Kepel 2012.

[40] Kortmann 2012.

[41] Perhaps the most extreme case – in the sense of its operational mode in the strict confines of civil society and its deliberate distance to politics – of this form is the non-political, ‘quietist’ Salafism in France, where more powerful community members assume such roles. See: Adraoui 2013; Amghar 2008.

[42] Bruce 2019; Dumont 2007; Aissaoui 2006, 2009.

[43] Notwithstanding my argument based on the changes in material structures, the relatively-autonomous role of ideology and discourse also plays an important role – see: Yilmaz 2016.

[44] Kepel 2012, pp. 244–91.

[45] Peace 2015.

[46] Harris 2021.

[47] Callinicos 2008.

[48]Bieler and Morton 2004.

[49] Ancelovici 2002, p. 435.

[50] Rupert 2003.

[51] Bouteldja and Khiari 2012.

[52] Kipfer 2011.

[53] The Indigènes have always had a certain sensitivity to class exploitation, as Bouteldja and Boussoumah (2021) insist; the foundational texts of the movement, such as Khiari 2009 and Bouteldja 2017, however, treat class exploitation with a secondary importance to racial oppression. More on this will follow in the next section.

[54] Khiari 2009; also see: Khiari 2006.

[55] Khiari 2010.

[56] Táíwò 2022. Similarly, though from a more sociological perspective, Cedric Johnson (2022) employs terms such as ‘elite-brokerage dynamics’ or ‘elite-driven politics’ in his work on the class contradictions of black political life in the US.

[57] Cohen and Rogers 1992; Fung and Wright 2001; Wright 2010.

[58] Khiari 2009, pp. 126–7. (My translation.)

[59] Bouteldja 2017, p. 30. On the same page, she notes: ‘I only have one conscience, which awakens my memories of 1492’; and later on, she concludes: ‘… in 1492, what was imposed in the Americas was less an economic system than a civilization: Modernity’ (p. 118).

[60] Khiari 2009, pp. 133–5.

[61] For that Bayrou could be seen as ‘lesser evil’, see Khiari 2010.

[62] Among his many works, I specifically refer to Mayer 1971; also see: Grandin 2010.

[63] Grandin 2010, p. 417.

“For Israel and communism”?

Making sense of Germany’s Antideutsche

Leandros Fisher

As the Israeli state’s dispossession of the Palestinian people becomes more difficult to obscure by the day, the Left in one country is conspicuous in its absence from the global solidarity movement with the oppressed between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. With some exceptions, the German Left largely avoids taking a stance on the conflict between the state of Israel and the Palestinian people. In some cases, it has even joined the national pro-Israel chorus, stretching all the way to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. This attitude encompasses a diverse set of actors, from the leadership of Germany’s left reformist party, Die Linke (“The Left”), to squats such as the celebrated Rote Flora in Hamburg. This hostile attitude towards Palestinian liberation is often attributed to guilt for the Shoah and the corresponding semantic identification of Israel, Zionism, and Judaism in public discourse. A complementary explanation identifies the Antideutsche (the “anti-Germans”) as a factor in shaping the Left’s current approach to Israel. These started out as an ultra-left critique of Germany as a nation, following a wave of nationalist jingoism triggered by reunification. However, rather than criticising nationalism, today’s Antideutsche engage in an Ersatz nationalism around one particular state. Elements of this include flying the Israeli flag and wearing IDF shirts, hatred of Muslims as natural-born antisemites, not to mention a disturbing celebration of Israeli violence against Palestinians framed as “anti-fascism”.


This piece is being made available as a preprint edition of the double-volume Marxism and the Critique of Antisemitism special issue of Historical Materialism. Further additions will still be made before then. The final published version of this text will be made available on the Brill website in the coming months. We ask that citations refer to the Brill edition.All Illustrations are by Natalia Podpora.


There is truth in both explanations. Notwithstanding its frequent degeneration into national narcissism – for only those who can truly feel guilty about the Judeocide can be “real Germans” – the guilt is real and understandable. The accusation of antisemitism is indeed one of the most destructive weapons that can be levelled against any leftist in Germany.[1] This stems from both the unparalleled nature of crimes against European Jewry, and the German Left’s historical failure to prevent them. However, it also derives from the consciously selective policies of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (“confronting the past”) of post-war Germanelites. Reducing Nazi crimes to those against the Jews not only helped to obscure other crimes, such as the Porajamos, the genocide of Sinti and Roma communities. It also absolves the German state from any historical responsibility towards other victims of Nazi terror to this day. When, for example, in the context of German-imposed austerity, Greek politicians began raising the issue of German war debt – which Greece was coerced into “forgiving” in the late 1940s by its Western allies – politicians and tabloids decried this as a populist stunt aimed at guilt-tripping the honest German taxpayer. If Germans pledge unconditional support to the self-proclaimed “Jewish state”, then Vergangenheitsbewältigung [“overcoming the past”]is complete, so goes the implicit reasoning.

On the other hand, those who would still describe themselves as Antideutsche are shrinking politically, confined to a fringe subculture that adopts left-wing aesthetics but has politically moved markedly to the right. The Antideutsch label has become so toxic, even for many whose stances on Palestine would incur that adjective. Treating the Antideutsche, however, as a legitimate component of left pluralism for many years, has led to the mainstreaming of racist postulates within the wider Left. The Antideutsche are usually framed as the other extreme of an outdated “Marxist-Leninist” anti-imperialism, whose stances on Israel-Palestine are potentially open to anti-Semitic interpretations. The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s fellowship programme, for example, applied such an approach for years. While tolerating Antideutsch associations within the ranks of its fellows, it aimed at formulating what it called a “master narrative” centred on language. Left-wing Germans are thus given the task to understand the legitimate grievances of both Zionism and the Palestinians and to become exponents of a balanced approach towards the conflict, away from both Antideutsch and “anti-imperialist” extremes.[2] This symmetrical discourse centred on German projections and Befindlichkeiten (“sensitivities”) predictably obscures the conflict’s defining asymmetries, not to mention the German political establishment’s active role in sustaining them through extensive political, economic, and military backing of Israel. By treating them as a necessary but over-the-top corrective to an alleged antisemitism of past German anti-imperialism,[3] the mere existence of the Antideutsche has slowly but steadily shifted the entire Left’s discourse on Palestine to the right.

Yet the combination of German guilt and the Antideutsche do not by themselves explain the Left’s current Sonderweg. For two decades, support for Palestinian liberation was something uncontroversial among the German radical Left in the majority of its manifestations, and even within the SPD and the Greens.[4] Reunification brought back the “German question” with a vengeance: how could one now positively relate to Germany? Seen from this perspective, the exponential rise of the political class’s identification with Israel – which by default precludes any substantial criticism of its treatment of Palestinians – can be understood as part of the general ideology underpinning a more assertive German role in world affairs since 1990. All major political forces in Germany subscribe to this ideology. This is either because Germany must assume its perceived share  of “responsibility” in global leadership (the centrist argument), because of humanitarian-interventionist concerns (the Greens), or due to national-sovereigntist reasons (the AfD). This ideology necessarily also radiates to those forces like Die Linke, which although critical of it, ultimately wish to eventually enter a coalition government with the SPD and the Greens. Like obedience to NATO and the EU’s single currency regime, support for Israel forms part of the preconditions for joining the legitimate political game.[5] However, and like in other European countries, this support for Israel is also intimately entangled with the rise of anti-Muslim racism as a mode of projecting society’s vices – including antisemitism (equated with anti-Zionism) – into a Muslim Other.[6]

In this case, the ideological entrenchment of a pro-Israel consensus and its manifestations on the Left are also reflective of the German Left’s overall diminishing influence in a political terrain characterised by the stagnation of the labour movement on the one hand, and the corresponding hegemony of so-called “culture wars” over the public sphere on the other. However, the hypothesis that the side-lining of the Left’s socioeconomic agenda makes a pro-Israel orientation within it a foregone conclusion – as joining a coalition government forms the ultimate political horizon – is one that requires some scrutiny. For despite the radical Left’s decline, manifested by Die Linke’s increasing electoral irrelevance, Germany has witnessed massive mobilisations against the far right and in support of refugees in recent years, as well as its own reckoning around racial justice following the murder of George Floyd – both developments that indirectly challenge the social pro-Israel consensus as well as its exponents within the Left.

This intervention is not about Germany’s complex relationship to its Nazi past. It rather deals with how the German Left has historically understood antisemitism and how this has influenced its position vis-à-vis the issue of Palestine and beyond. Indeed, the Left’s positions in this regard exist in constant dialogue with hegemonic discourses, in a dialectical process of cross-fertilisation involving moments of co-option, convergence, but also rupture. However, the Left must be understood here as a relatively autonomous field structured by its own norms and values.

Specifically, when it comes to explaining the emergence of the Antideutsch phenomenon – rightfully perceived as a key, if not the key subjective factor for many German leftists’ current understanding of antisemitism – two schools of thought can be (schematically) discerned. Using mostly discourse analysis, one views the current as an initially legitimate response gone wrong to perceived antisemitic and nationalist phenomena within the German New Left.[7] Utilizing a more historical approach, another school situates the Antideutsche as a by-product of political defeat, ideological degeneration, and a shift of former left-wingers to the (far) right.[8] The Antideutsche are viewed primarily here as renegades, whose excesses are sometimes nothing but dialectical opposites to pro-Palestinian-cum-antisemitic excesses within the 1968 Left.[9] While the latter approach is considerably more solid than the former, due to its placement of the Antideutsch phenomenon in a specific historical context, it has the disadvantage of often veering towards a moralistic condemnation of the Antideutsche as “not part of the left”, implicitly leaving the defeat of 1989 and the sui generis German historical context as the only potential explanations for the emergence and subsequent resilience of the Antideutsche.

This article similarly views the post-war German Left’s perceptions of antisemitism from the standpoint of German history, as well as of the real-existing conflict between Zionist settler colonialism on the one hand and the resistance this colonialism has engendered among the Palestinians on the other. To put it otherwise, it does not treat the conflict as an irrelevant projection screen to which the German Left has nothing practical to contribute, like so many allegedly balanced but ultimately self-serving accounts of the issue do.[10] The article contends that the current hostile attitude of large parts of the German Left towards Palestinian liberation owes much to a distorted understanding of antisemitism that results to, but also stretches beyond a conflation of Jews with Israel and Zionism.

I argue that the main explanatory framework for this distorted understanding is not to be found in either the specificities of the German historical context, guilt over real or alleged antisemitic excesses of the German New Left, or the bitter experience of the 1989 defeat. Neither is it to be found in distorted readings of either Adorno’s critical theory or value-critical Marxism. Important as these variables are, they are not of determining significance. The existence of the Antideutsch phenomenon and the perceptions of antisemitism it has inspired owes much more to the (West) German Left’s sociological makeup and its general isolation from the working class after 1945.

In this context, the radical Left historically committed two mistakes. Either it dissolved the question of Nazi antisemitism entirely into a general critique of racism and colonialism; or it resorted to readings of Marxism that reduced antisemitism to its pseudo-socialist pretensions. Both one-sided explanations failed to account for the enduring dual character of antisemitism as both false anti-capitalist consciousness, as well as a phenomenon whose manifestations under capitalism are intimately linked to lineages of biologistic racism, which would be inconceivable without the formative experience of colonialism.[11]

Today, three key factors account for the enduring relevance of Antideutsch ideas within left-wing debates. First, the institutionalisation of the radical Left in the form of Die Linke, which has transformed the question of “left-wing antisemitism” into an object of public discourse, (i.e., a weapon against the Left in toto), against the backdrop of the German labour movement’s stagnation and Die Linke’s declining electoral fortunes.  Second, the mainstreaming in hegemonic discourse of individualised explanations of racism, providing Antideutsch accounts of antisemitism as an inescapable pathological disease a lease of life. Third, the triumph of allegedly progressive liberal-idealist, or “post-national” justifications for the projection of German power, in which support for Israel features as a key legitimizing cornerstone. These factors do not represent the reasons for the Antideutsche’s emergence, and they are increasingly challenged by the growing visibility of uncomfortable narratives, such as those of Palestinian Germans and non- or anti-Zionist Jews. They do, however, account for the discrepancy between the Antideutsche as a dwindling subcultural fringe phenomenon on the one hand, and their outsized influence on the wider Left on the other.

This article chronologically follows the evolution of the German Left’s perceptions of antisemitism, which eventually led to the emergence of the Antideutsch current, from the post-war Left’s emergence after 1945 to the appearance of Die Linke in the mid-2000s. Particular attention is paid to the dominant character of Maoism within the German New Left, its decline, the significance of Moishe Postone’s theorization of German fascism, as well as the role of the German autonomist movement. 

From the ruins, a new Left emerges

To say that the question of antisemitism figured prominently in the history of the German labour movement would be a gross understatement. The early labour movement and the party it brought forth, the SPD, were confronted with a resurgence of völkisch antisemitism in the Kaiserreich as well as with the resulting strategic dilemmas this resurgence brought forth. While it has become fashionable in German mainstream discourse to paint early Social Democrats and pre-1933 Communists as naïve at best, complicit at worst in the social entrenchment of the antisemitism that enabled the rise of the Nazis, the reality could not be further from the truth. The Left’s central mistake was to underestimate antisemitism as a pre-modern residual bound to disappear, an assumption in line with pre-1914 Social Democracy’s broader evolutionary belief in the inevitability of socialism, as well as the KPD’s pre-1933 underestimation of Nazism as simply another form of reactionary right-wing dictatorship.[12] The German labour movement fought antisemitism at decisive moments, recognizing it as an inherently reactionary ideology and an enemy of the workers.

Nazism, however, destroyed the entire German Left, understood here as the parties of the major labour movement, the SPD, and the KPD, as well as the various “in-between” dissident groups like the Communist Party Opposition (KPO) and the Socialist Workers’ Party (SAP) advocating a united front to stop Hitler. The Nazis did not merely destroy the labour movement by banning it and killing its leaders. They did so by co-opting its lifeworld and redirecting its sense of collective identity into a völkisch outlook. True, there was resistance, but there was no mass uprising. Plundering Europe’s resources to keep German workers from rising like in 1918 was a top priority for the Nazis. For good or for bad, liberation from fascism in Germany came on the back of the Allied armies, not from within.[13] In the critical timeframe between the collapse of the Nazi regime and the arrival of Allied armies, workers did indeed form anti-fascist committees, returning to their previous communist and social democratic allegiances. The links between big business and the horrors of Nazism were so obvious, that even a reconstituted Christian Democracy could proclaim “transcending capitalism” as its goal in its 1947 Ahlen manifesto.

Nevertheless, this hopeful period was short-lived. In the East, Stalinism became another form of compulsion, and the crushing of the 1953 workers’ uprising by Russian tanks made the German Democratic Republic’s claims of being a “workers’ and peasants’ state” appear ludicrous. In the West, de-Nazification ended in 1951 and anticommunism reigned supreme again. The KPD became increasingly isolated and was eventually outlawed in 1956. The Bonn Republic was a CDU party-state. The oppositional SPD still adhered to Marxism, but this was a losing battle. The economic miracle accompanying the expansion of a generous welfare state, made the idea of class struggle look increasingly outdated. Eventually, the SPD abandoned Marxism in its 1959 Bad Godesberg manifesto to become a broad “people’s” rather than class party.

What constituted the radical Left during this period – a movement dedicated to a fundamental critique of capitalism – was confined to an intellectual and overwhelmingly middle-class milieu at the intersections of the SPD’s left wing and the student movement, primarily the SDS: the Socialist German Student Federation. The SDS was expelled from its mother-party in the early 1960s after the latter’s abandonment of Marxism, thus evolving into the main vehicle of extra-parliamentary social opposition to the Bonn Republic. The Left rallied around a series of demands: acceptance of (but not ideological identification with) the GDR; pacifism and opposition to NATO and German rearmament; the fight against prevailing Nazi-era structures, such as the student fraternities in universities; as well as the general fight against historical amnesia. Theoretically, the Left drew heavily on writings of the Frankfurt School, such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s  Dialectic of the Enlightenment.[14] That the political resignation of Critical Theory was a major influence should come as no surprise. The elevation of critique to the highest form of subversion appealed to those enduring the suffocating climate of the Adenauer years, as did its elaborate critique of consumer society, the culture industry, as well as the correlation of antisemitism and fascist rule. For the Frankfurt School, Nazi antisemitism represented the violent return of the suppressed irrationality of a totally administered society. It did not, however, provide any explanation for the Shoah, beyond its characterisation as the epitome of civilizational collapse. For Adorno – now back at Frankfurt’s Institute for Social Research, teaching a new generation of radicals –Marxism could only recognise the Shoah “at the price of its self-mutilation”.[15] The experience of Nazi antisemitism functioned as a guiding moral principle for a New Left, which refrained from any systematic attempt at understanding its root causes.

Regarding Israel, the positions of this Left did not differ from those of its counterparts in the rest of Europe. First, Israel was viewed exclusively as the result of the Shoah, a safe haven for the now nationally re-constituted Jews. In this reading, Zionism was but a legitimate response to the horrors inflicted upon the Jews, especially given the evident failure of historical alternatives, such as communism or Bundism. Accepting it as a minimum converged with a general process of atonement for Nazi crimes. Working in Israel, for example, was part of the programme of the Protestant Church’s Action Reconciliation Service for Peace (Aktion Sühnezeichen), an organisation otherwise dedicated to sending young Germans to volunteer in countries directly victimised by Nazi rule. A mixture of ignorance, falsehoods, and colonialist racism rendered the indigenous Palestinian Arabs invisible to left-wing discourse. Second, establishing official relations with Israel was a progressive cause, as the Federal Republic withheld recognition for fear of Arab recognition of the GDR. Third, the mythology of Labor Zionism – notably thekibbutzim – appealed to those seeking an alternative between capitalism and state socialism. There was hardly any challenge to this position from the left. After all, the Soviet Union had, for its own short-term geopolitical purposes, supported the UN Partition Plan and armed the Zionist militias, effectively destroying the communist movement in Palestine.[16] That it did so by referring to a vaguely defined right to self-determination for Jews and Arabs – a policy that the GDR would also adopt – did little to untangle the conflation of Jews with Zionism within the Left’s perception.

These myths have been thoroughly deconstructed, both as regards to the circumstances of Israel’s founding,[17] as well as to the idea of Zionism’s socialist origins.[18] As for the absence of official relations, this obscured the wide-ranging military and intelligence cooperation between Bonn and Tel Aviv. The Luxemburg Agreement, where West Germany joined the international community in exchange for vital economic aid and infrastructure to Israel was pushed by Adenauer with the support of the SPD, already enjoying close relations with Ben Gurion’s Mapai party and the Histadrut Zionist trade union federation. Furthermore, Israel’s aggressive posture in the 1956 Suez War stood in contrast to American restraint and factual acceptance of the bipolar world order. The latter was anathema to German conservatives, who sought to delegitimise the GDR and overturn the new territorial status quo of German partition.  Far from viewing it with suspicion, German elites began seeing Israel as an asset in an anti-Soviet crusade.[19]

However, it can be argued that the German Left took a false position for the right reasons. It supported Israel not as a colonial settler state, but as a small benevolent and quasi-socialist endeavour, which antisemitic German elites would not recognise for anti-communist reasons. The one challenge to this thinking originated in the growing importance of anti-colonialism. Parts of SPD engaged in active solidarity with the Algerian National Liberation Front from the mid-1950s onwards.[20] The Algerian War pointed to contradictions of the Left’s stance on Israel; while France was Israel’s biggest backer at the time, Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser supported the FLN. This contradiction was not unique to the German Left. It was also shared by eminent personalities in France, notably Jean-Paul Sartre.[21] However, it pointed to a slow process that would unravel more forcefully following the 1967 War.

Image and reality of German anti-imperialism

In 1965, Bonn and Tel Aviv established official relations. This was preceded by a series of Cold War-related events, including leaked revelations of US supplies of weapons to Israel via West Germany, as well as an official visit by the GDR’s leader, Walter Ulbricht, to Cairo. As such, the Left’s demand for diplomatic relations became obsolete. The 1967 war, however, was the event that accelerated the Left’s disengagement from Israel. Two reasons were conducive to this process. First, the same detested and Nazi-infested establishment was now enchanted by the Israeli victory, seemingly the triumph of a European militarist nationalist collective over Soviet-backed Third World armies. To criticise Israeli expansionism now was primarily to condemn the hypocrisy of West German elites. Trying to balance sympathies for both Israel and Arab anti-colonialism, for example, Ulrike Meinhof[22] would attempt to square the circle by attacking the German establishment’s cynical philosemitism. Second, the influence of Maoism and the Vietnam War were making themselves felt on German campuses. China was already a prominent backer of the PLO, routinely denouncing Soviet moves towards “peaceful coexistence”, which, in the case of Israel, did not challenge the 1948 status quo. Opposing Israel primarily meant opposing an American asset in the Middle East.

Developments in the Middle East caught the SDS by surprise. The organisation’s theory review, the Neue Kritik, hosted a debate on its pages following the 1967 war. At its conference in September that year, the SDS experienced a three-way split on the issue. Many of the older cadre socialised in the SPD took a position, which was critical albeit supportive of Israel.[23] On the other hand, many younger members influenced by Maoism took a position of uncritical support to radical Arab nationalism. A Trotskyist minority expressed a stance of critical support for the Arab side. The debate was shelved to the relief of many members who felt this was a complex and awkward issue. However, the pro-Arab tilt of the SDS at large would accelerate, especially as the PLO and a new Arab Left centred on it would become more visible following the defeat of Nasserism.

In the following decade, the German radical Left would support the Palestinians in one way or another. Examples include the marxisant Young Socialists within the SPD (Jusos), the pro-Soviet German Communist Party (DKP), and the myriad Maoist K-Gruppen, all the way to theAutonomia-inspired anti-authoritarian “Spontis”.[24] Differences were mainly programmatic, reflecting allegiances to specific organisations on the ground. The K-Gruppen, for instance, leaned heavily towards the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine; the Jusos developed a relationship with Fatah within the framework of the Socialist International; the DKP adopted the positions of the non-Zionist Israeli Communist Party; whereas Trotskyists had relations to the Israeli anti-Zionist group Matzpen, as well as Palestinian students from the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.[25] 

Today, the Left’s conversion to radical anti-imperialism forms a constituent part of the German establishment’s narrative of discrediting the subversive elements of 1968. As in other countries, this narrative relies on separating the “positive” elements of the era – sexual liberation, the revolt against conservative elites, individual autonomy – from the “negative” ones – anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, and an anti-Zionism easily degenerating into “antisemitism”. The Left’s intentions – so the narrative – were noble, but it took a wrong turn as it ditched the pedagogical teachings of the Frankfurt School for an anti-intellectualism of the Little Red Book, which paved the way for violence, bureaucratic authoritarianism, and ultimately antisemitism. Blockbusters likeThe Baader Meinhof Complex reinforce this image in their portrayal of hedonistic German radicals training in Palestinian guerrilla camps and driven by an almost nihilistic need for violence. All this begs the question if there was an antisemitic element within the German New Left, as detractors claim, and if so, to what extent.

Like any other form of racism, antisemitism is a social phenomenon – there is no rule stating that those belonging to the radical Left are immune to it. The dominant positive conflation of Jews with Zionism was not always easy to untangle in the West German context and some degree of guilt deflection and projection was potentially involved, expressed for instance in the elevation of “anti-Zionism” to a form of political identity. Then there was, of course, the cooperation between West German urban guerrillas like the Red Army Faction (RAF) and the more “anti-authoritarian” Revolutionary Cells (RZ) - notorious for their hijacking in Entebbe and the separation of Jewish from non-Jewish hostages (Israelis, according to one hostage)[26] – with Palestinian counterparts.

Predominantly focusing on left-wing terrorism however, the hegemonic narrative on the German 1968 elevates the era’s widespread anti-imperialism and support for Palestinian liberation to concrete ideological expressions of a latent antisemitism, crypto-nationalism, or both.[27] Actual anti-Semitic incidents like the bombing of a Jewish community centre by a West Berlin radical group in 1969 are often provided as evidence. Nonetheless, what such narratives fail to mention, is that the majority of the radical Left – which was several times larger than the RAF and the RZ combined and included Palestine solidarity committees – condemned this and other similar incidents.[28]. Ultimately, the arguments of “renegades” like Gerd Koenen[29] rest on the accusation that the radical Left made common cause with organisations that wanted to kill Jews for the sake of it, an intention cleverly masked behind formulas such as “secular democratic state”. In other words, the case for an allegedly widespread “antisemitic anti-Zionism” rests on the racist assumption of dubious Arabs in general, and Palestinians in particular, following in the footsteps of Nazis, simply for refusing to accept a colonial fait accompli on their homeland. Although easily debunked,[30] such claims of Nazi lineages of Arab nationalism and Islamism have been popularised by none other than former Maoists with no knowledge of Arabic,[31] lending legitimacy to contemporary racist discourses.

Another problem with this reading is the Eurocentric reduction of the German Left’s position on Palestine to a purely psychological dimension. In fact, as Quinn Slobodian[32] shows, foreign students – including Palestinians – were active agents in shaping the German Left’s anticolonial and anti-imperialist outlook on a number of questions. Palestinian struggles in West Germany were not reducible to soliciting solidarity for their struggle against Israel. Large parts of Left joined civil society organisations in defending Palestinian workers from collective punishment and mass deportations, following the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes in Munich, for example.[33]

Nonetheless, the German Left’s thinking regarding the connections between antisemitism, fascism, and Zionism remained severely under-theorised, for both subjective and objective reasons. Contrary to Britain or France – one thinks of Daniel Bensaïd, Alain Krivine, or Tony Cliff – there  were hardly any prominent anti-Zionist Jews, within the German radical Left, who could explain Zionism’s appeal as a tragic consequence of the horrors of the 20th century rather than primarily as an imperialist plot directed by Washington. Remaining Jewish communities in West Germany were miniscule, composed largely of Eastern European refugees generally hostile to the Left’s agenda, for both socioeconomic and ideological reasons.

On the other hand, the dominant anti-American framing drowned out more sophisticated analyses of Israel as a colonial settler-state, such as the ones pioneered by Maxime Rodinson or Matzpen. Like in the GDR,[34] “Zionism” was attacked as simply an expansionist ideology, not as a misguided response to real-existing antisemitism. The all-determining context of the Cold War in West Germany meant that Israel’s alliance with US imperialism was the key question at stake, while the Palestinian struggle was not rarely simplistically framed as merely one of state-centred territorial national liberation, with the far more complex mechanisms of settler colonial oppression – themselves justified with the experience of European antisemitism – left largely ignored.    

The Left’s stance was so overwhelmingly contingent on a state- rather than class-centred worldview pitting nationalist movements and “objectively progressive” regimes against Western imperialism, that it was bound to unravel the moment this anti-imperialism was thrown into crisis. Nixon’s visit to China, revelations on the horrors of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, but also the bloodbath mounted against the Iranian Left following the Khomeinist counter-revolution, all resulted in a collapse of the anti-imperialist paradigm by the early 1980s.  The blindspots in this regard, however, were compounded by an even greater weakness.

The SDS’s self-dissolution in 1970 resulted from a concerted turn to class politics, which the pessimism of Adorno or the utopianism of Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm could not address. This turn was influenced by outside events – popular demonstrations against the “Emergency Laws” in the late 1960s, wildcat strikes in 1969 and a radical movement of young apprentices (Lehrlingsbewegung), as well as the 1968 general strike in France and Italy’s “hot autumn” of 1969. Such movements were less successful within the more prosperous West German capitalism. One the one hand, the new social-liberal coalition under Willy Brandt was able to co-opt many of the student movement’s demands for a democratisation of society. On the other hand, the most militant strikes, such as the 1973 strike at Ford’s Cologne plant, were led byGastarbeiter. Both the state and the trade union bureaucracy confronted these strikes with an iron fist, often deporting rebellious migrant workers under the premises of a racist migration policy.

This structural weakness of working class militancy was fertile ground for a campus-centred Maoism, which became hegemonic among the West German radical Left. This is not to say that the working class played no part in the emergence of West German Maoism; the Hamburg-based Kommunistischer Bund (KB), for instance, largely sprang up from the young apprentices’ movement.[35] But the ebbing for militant workers’ struggles from the early 1970s onwards contributed to the increasingly subcultural character of the K-Gruppen, in many ways resembling that of the Antideutsche two decades later. The K-Gruppen – notably the KPD/ML, the KBW, the KPD/AO, and the KB – had memberships numbering thousands, incidentally providing the first political socialization experience for future SPD and Green ministers, and top trade union functionaries.[36] But the discrepancy between their dominance of German universities on the one hand, and their isolation from the broader labour movement on the other, translated into their overt investment in sectarian squabbles. Each K-Gruppe laid claim to the “correct line” in light of increasingly confusing developments in China – the death of Mao, the “three worlds theory”, the downfall of the “gang of four”, and – most importantly – China’s increasing tilt towards he US and its hostility to the Soviet Union.

Dogmatic adherence to Maoist teachings and a corresponding lack of theoretical sophistication[37] enabled the prevalence of an anti-intellectual agitprop posture among the K-Gruppen. Part of this was the importation of Stalinist tropes on fascism as “the open, terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic, and most imperialist elements of finance capital”.[38] Another part was the dissolution of anti-fascism into a generalised opposition to capitalism and imperialism, exemplified by the slogan of that era, “USA-SA-SS”. Though framed less vulgarly, similar takes on fascism were echoed by the DKP and Stamokap-wing[39] within the SPD Left. Their theorems of GDR and Soviet origin reduced fascism to an instrument of big capital and counterpoised a cross-class “popular front” as an answer.

However lacking in sophistication and depth, these approaches must nevertheless be understood as responses to the state’s Cold War doctrine of “totalitarianism theory”. By equating Nazism with Stalinism, this doctrine served to obscure the Federal Republic’s continuities with the Hitler era. Nevertheless, Maoist-Stalinist “anti-fascism” was by default unable to explain the specificities of both Nazi antisemitism and the Shoah. Combined with the radical Left’s pessimistic outlook about the German working class, the KB in particular would develop this understanding of fascism further with its thesis of the “fascisation of state and society”. This theory argued that capitalism’s mounting contradictions in Germany would not result in a revolution, but rather in the return of fascism.[40] This was important, insofar as the main ideologues of the early Antideutsch current would mostly originate from the KB.

Pershings, punks, and historians quarrelling: the road to 1989

The Antideutsche emerged from the convergence of chronically distinct yet intimately connected dynamics. The events of the “German Autumn” of 1977 accelerated the radical Left’s decline. Faced with kidnappings and hijackings by the RAF and sympathetic Palestinians, the German state responded with an unprecedented wave of repression targeting the entire radical Left and culminating in the deaths of the RAF’s founding generation in prison. The ferocity of state repression was shocking, laying bare the radical Left’s isolation from wider society. Spontis and K-Gruppen members flocked en masse to the newly formed Green Party. Despite emerging in the context of radical anti-nuclear protests, the party was decidedly oriented towards parliamentary respectability from the start, encompassing many rural conservative milieus as well. Other “new social movements” of that time like feminism were joined in the early 1980s by a movement against the stationing of US Pershing nuclear missiles. This large-scale movement was not only backed by the Greens and the SPD’s left wing, but also by an assortment of public intellectuals, and institutions like churches. In contrast to the anti-Vietnam War movement, however, the prevailing pacifist moralism provided few openings for what remained of the revolutionary Left.

The most radical movement to emerge in the late 1970s built on preceding struggles within the sphere of social reproduction, such as those against housing speculation spearheaded by the anti-authoritarian Spontis. Inspired by the punk wave, a new movement emerged, which like the Spontis drew on Italian operaismo but was generationally younger. The Autonomen made their presence felt around 1980-81, establishing squats in Hamburg and West Berlin as protest against unaffordable rents. Other struggles included anti-nuclear and anti-NATO protests. The autonomists were much of a movement as they were a scene. In the squats and on the barricades, they nurtured close relations with the “Antiimps”, sympathisers of the RAF’s “second” and “third generation”. Their differences were of a primarily tactical nature. While both saw themselves as revolutionary currents, the Antiimps clung on to the RAF’s concept of underground struggle, whereas the autonomists had a more social-revolutionary outlook.

Another important shift of that era revolved around the growing mediatisation of the Shoah, a process originating in the United States in the context of the re-negotiation of Jewish-American identity.[41] A product of this process, the miniseries Holocaust, aired in West Germany in 1979. Its impact challenged dominant assumptions of the Judeocide’s perpetrators as exclusively composed of an inner Nazi core.The radical Left had led the most decisive struggle against the endurance of Nazi-era structures and mentalities. Now, as primetime viewers found themselves identifying with the persecuted Jewish characters of the series, the wall of denial around the Shoah characteristic of mainstream society was collapsing.

This processwould culminate in the mid-1980s during the “Historians’ Quarrel”. Mainly pitting historian Ernst Nolte – who interpreted the Holocaust as a pre-emptive strike against Bolshevik “class genocide” – against Jürgen Habermas – who correctly accused Nolte of historical revisionism – the debate focused on the question of the Shoah’s singularity.[42] The exchange was heated, as the Kohl government embarked on a neoconservative project of whitewashing German nationalism, and was understood as being tacitly supportive of Nolte’s theses. Proclaiming the impossibility of any contextualisation of the Judeocide, however, the postulate of the victorious Habermas would be gradually elevated into a national discourse in the years to come.

The Historikerstreit was the precursor to a series of discourses on the German past, played out in the 1990s, such as discussions on Daniel Goldhagen’sHitler’s Willing Executioners,[43] debates around the construction of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, and others. Their cumulative effect was to gradually replace the “old German catechism”[44] of externalising responsibility to a few bad apples, with a new redemptive one centring the Shoah as the Republic’s “moral foundation”. This solidified Germany’s special responsibility for “Israel’s security”, predictably expressed in the equivalence between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. This new attitude was also contingent on the triumph of liberal-idealist framings over the realist approaches that characterised German foreign policy before 1990.[45] The former Sponti Joschka Fischer gave an apt example of this during the Kosovo War in 1999. When faced with turmoil within his Green Party for leading Germany into its first war since 1945 during the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia, he famously responded by saying he didn’t only learn “never again war” but also “never again Auschwitz” and “never again fascism”.

Postone’s theory of Nazi antisemitism as “foreshortened anti-capitalism”

Radical Left reactions to Holocaust in Germany were the subject of Moishe Postone’s 1980 easyAntisemitism and National Socialism.[46] The essay retroactively became one of the Antideutsch movement’s foundational documents. In it, Postone castigated the German Left’s inability to conceptualise the specificity of Nazi antisemitism, framing the Left’s excessive anti-Zionism as guilt deflection rather than genuine concern for the Palestinians. Furthermore, Postone attempted to fill class-struggle-oriented Marxism’s perceived deficits in explaining Nazi antisemitism, by defining it as a form of “foreshortened anti-capitalism”. This was reflective of the commodity’s inherent tension between concrete use value on the one hand, and abstract exchange value on the other. For Postone, National Socialism essentially constituted a movement of the “concrete” against the quasi-mystified abstract rule of capital. For reasons of historical contingency, the “abstract” is equated with the Jews and their presence in the sphere of circulation. Auschwitz thus represented the culmination of the destruction of abstract value. Postone’s analysis was responding to serious deficits within the hegemonic Marxist traditions of West Germany regarding the nature of the Judeocide. By effectively reducing it to merely an extreme form of right-wing dictatorship by big capital, Stalinist readings of German fascism were downplaying its pseudo-revolutionary articulation in the context of a mass movement of the petty bourgeoisie.[47] By counterpoising the concrete to the abstract, Postone was alluding to Nazi propaganda’s distinction between good “productive”, and “hoarding”, i.e. financial, or “Jewish” capital.

On a narrow theoretical sense, Postone’s interpretation of the meaning of abstraction in Marx as denoting something incomprehensible, rather than a condensation of social relations not visible in money’s physical form, has been criticised as arbitrary.[48] Politically, Postone’s theory of the Nazis as foreshortened anti-capitalism was not entirely original. Even if assassinated before the Shoah was set in motion, Trotsky’s awareness of the imminent danger facing the Jews stemmed from his analysis of fascism as a specific form of counter-revolution masked as revolution, carried mainly by a petit bourgeoisie destroyed by crisis.

However, unlike Trotsky, Postone was emptying National Socialism of any concrete class content, as well as any mention of its relation to the other two relevant social forces: the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Following Postone’s logic, if National Socialism’s anti-Semitic impetus stemmed from alienation in a world dominated by abstract value, then its base should have consisted of the class most alienated under capitalism, the proletariat.[49] That all this did not concern Postone, should come as no surprise given his stature as an exponent of a “value-critical” Marxism, a current that emphasises the specificity of labour under capitalism while rejecting its capacity for revolutionary change.[50][51] Finally, while the 1968 Left did negate the Shoah’s specificities, viewing it exclusively through the prism of capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism, the biologistic racism constituting its framework was indeed rooted in 19th century colonialism. Research in recent years has emphasised lineages between the Herero Genocide committed by the German Empire in Namibia between 1904 and 1908 and the Shoah, rendering a complete extrapolation of the latter from the histories of colonialism, both European and German, untenable.[52]

Postone’s framing of antisemitism as “foreshortened anti-capitalism,” responded to the Left’s difficulties in explaining the Shoah’s economic irrationality, especially following its incremental salience in public life. In doing so, his theory signalled both a break and continuity with the post-war German Left’s key tenets. It was a clear break from the economistic takes on National Socialism prevalent within West German Maoism and Stalinism. It was continuity, in the sense that here again was an interpretation of Marxism that ascribed no role to the real-existing working class. Such a strategy of “critical critique” would speak to the radical Left’s largely middle-class composition and its isolation from workers, when the Antideutsch current entered the stage in the late 1980s. It would increasingly fulfil the function of an apologia of neoliberalism, when capitalism’s contradictions began accelerating, even in prosperous Germany – first slowly in the late 1970s, then more rapidly from the 1990s onwards. Today, the influence of Antisemitism and National Socialism is visible in Antideutsch discourses. A caucus within Die Linke’s youth wing named “Shalom”, for example, defines itself as a working group against “antisemitism, anti-Zionism, anti-Americanism, and regressive anti-capitalism”.[53] Besides smearing Palestine solidarity as antisemitic, the Antideutsch reject any kind of opposition to finance capitalism, such as the Blockupy protests against the European Central Bank during the height of the Eurozone crisis, as “structurally antisemitic”. Labelling any movement from within the capitalist process as “regressive” would become an Antideutsch trademark.

The coming of a “Fourth Reich”? The Antideutsch current is born

Nevertheless, the Antideutsche as a current owe their existence to a sequence of events taking place during the subsequent decade. First, as the Intifada raged on in the late 1980s, the KB publicly withdrew its participation from a coalition of solidarity involving organisations of the radical Left ranging from the DKP to the Autonomen, citing the non-mentioning of Israel’s “right to exist” in the call. The debate between German revisionism and its discontents was being echoed within the Left, albeit in a distorted way. For the KB, denying Israel’s self-ascribed right to exist was tantamount to ignoring the historical context of its foundation, and by extension a concession to German revisionism. However, such arguments were not about supporting the Zionist viewpoint per se. One author of an intervention criticising antisemitic tendencies for example, spoke of the “internationalist duty” of supporting the Palestinian struggle.[54] It was far cry from the Antideutsche, who during the second Intifada would proclaim “tanks in Ramallah” to be the “true Antifa”. These debates originated in an overall process of critique against real-existing nationalist phenomena within the Left. Circumstantial evidence includes a Maoist K-Gruppe advocating a reunited Germany against Soviet “social imperialism”, nationalist tendencies within the early Greens, as well as imagery within the 1980s peace movement of Germans as the victims of a “nuclear Holocaust”.  

However, the cataclysmic events of reunification were the spark that would trigger the eventual unravelling of the radical Left. With the SPD and the Greens passively accepting Helmut Kohl’s assertiveness in pushing for rapid reunification, what remained of the radical Left – whether orthodox communist, autonomist, Maoist remnants like the KB, or radical Greens – converged around a coalition fittingly named “Radical Left”. The RL notably organised a large demonstration in Frankfurt under the motto Nie wieder Deutschland! (“Never again Germany!”) on 12 May 1990, as well as a congress three days later in Cologne.

Nevertheless, different perceptions of the reunification process emerged among these strange bedfellows. While one wing understood it in primarily economic terms – the wholesale privatisation of industry and the transformation of the East into a low-wage zone – another wing adopted a far more sinister perception of reunification. KB member and author Jürgen Elsässer[55] had expressed this sentiment in an essay called “Why the Left must be anti-German”.[56] It reasoned that reunified Germany, now in control of full sovereignty in foreign affairs, was on its way to becoming a Fourth Reich. It was thus necessary to support anybody opposing this process. The Antideutsch current was born, now constituted around the critical theory-oriented Bahamas magazine launched by a minority in the KB espousing the Antideutsch perspective on reunification. It is not hard here to discern, not only the pessimism of the KB’s “fascisation” thesis in this quasi-Maoist dictum of the “primary contradiction” between “Germany” and anyone “against Germany”, but also a radical makeover of the essentially liberalSonderweg thesis.

Other crucial events would ensue. The RL collapsed following disagreements around the 1991 Gulf War. Revelations had surfaced of West German firms supplying components to Iraq’s chemical weapons programme. It did not matter that this programme was actually directed against Iran, with blessings by the entire West. When Saddam Hussein launched Scud missiles against Israel, some in the RL saw this as proof of the antisemitic continuities of Germany’s emerging sovereignty in global affairs. They thus wondered if this wrong war was not actually being waged for objectively good reasons. The war also witnessed the emergence of a large-scale protest movement composed of newly politicised pupils. However, this movement collapsed overnight. It wasn’t just that leftists-cum-liberals like the publicist Hans-Magnus Enzensberger were equating Saddam’s Iraq to Nazi Germany in mainstream outlets like Der Spiegel.[57]  Ostensibly left-wing commentators began likening the pupils to the Hitler Youth[58]. Nazi comparisons and the accusation of antisemitism were now being used to stifle opposition to imperialism in post-Historikerstreit Germany.

As reunification carried on, more disillusionment followed. East German workers were for economic reasons the most enthusiastic supporters of rapid reunification. The democratic-socialist gradualists of the newly formed Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), around which GDR’s declassed professionals coalesced, were quickly sidelined. When Kohl’s promises of an economic miracle failed to materialise, the government responded by scapegoating migrants in a concerted campaign, which eventually pushed the SPD to consent to a drastic rollback of asylum rights. This campaign provided legitimacy to pogroms against asylum seekers, often carried out by working class youth. Scenes like in Rostock-Lichtenhagen in the summer of 1992, where neo-Nazis attacked refugees as onlookers cheered on, functioned to discredit the “popular front”-based anti-fascist paradigm, the doctrine of both the GDR and a sizeable part of the West German Left. Fascism, it seemed, could only be confronted by the direct action of a vanguard, if the majority was now part of the fascist rabble. Quickly spreading to the old Länder, the Nazi onslaught swelled the ranks of an autonomist Antifa overnight, a process effectively obscuring the radical Left’s collapse around the same time.[59]

Antideutsche and Autonomen: A love-hate relationship

As the prophecies of a Fourth Reich remained unfulfilled as the 1990s moved on, the Antideutsch current was thrown into an existential crisis and was thus in search of a new purpose. Here, the autonomist scene offered itself as an object of activity. An enduring characteristic of the Antideutsche is to compensate for inferior numbers with provocations, overwhelmingly against the rest of the Left. Thus being “against Germany” signaled not just a rejection of nationalism but of any class-oriented Marxist analysis pointing to contradictions within German society. Now, the Antideutsche were ridiculing the autonomists’ alleged rigid political correctness and sexual puritanism in the midst of a sexual abuse scandal splitting one of Berlin’s largest Antifa groups in the late 1990s, placing themselves on the side of the accused.[60]

The incident was typical of a pattern whereby Antideutsch provocations would serve making the miniscule current relevant for the autonomist scene, paving the way for an interaction that seemed bizarre at first. The Antideutsche devoted more time to obscure renditions of critical theory or value-critical Marxism, whereas the autonomists disdained theory in favour of direct action. There were, however, undeniable similarities. Both currents did not think much of the working class. That class was reactionary because of Germans’ natural propensity to mass murder (the Antideutsche), or irrelevant because it ceased to exist, at least in the way “traditional Marxism” had envisioned it (the Autonomen). Both were furthermore engaged in an ultra-left critique of German nationalism, albeit in different ways. The Antideutsche sought inspiration in the imagery of the 1940s anti-Hitler coalition, exemplified by the morbid slogan “Do it again, bomber Harris!”.[61]

The autonomists, on the other hand, were going through their own process of ideological transformation. Already in 1991, the Revolutionary Cells – perceived to have wide-ranging sympathies among the Autonomen – had published a renunciation of anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism, following the summary execution of a group member in Damascus by the group around Carlos the Jackal.[62] In their document, the RZ also described their selection of hostages in Entebbe as antisemitic. The document furthermore signalled a break with armed struggles for national sovereignty, citing the authoritarian character of many post-colonial states, and counterpoising to them the goal of social liberation. This thinking converged effortlessly with the growing appeal of post-structuralism within progressive academia throughout the 1990s. When the last vestiges of Keynesianism were being dismantled in the early 2000s, post-operaist anti-statism and hostility to trade unions, complemented Antideutsch takes on the welfare state as the incarnation of the Volksgemeinschaft.

However, the relative convergence of the Antideutsche and the Autonomen must additionally be viewed within the context of the deeper crisis of the autonomist Antifa of the early 1990s. The SPD-Green coalition under Gerhard Schröder elected in 1998, embarked on a programme of socially modernising German capitalism. In contrast to the previous Kohl government, whose attitude to neo-Nazi violence oscillated between indifference, appeasement, and outright instrumentalisation, the Schröder government defined right-wing extremism as a problem of the highest order. This awareness was already present within the establishment since the early 1990s pogroms, driven by fears that far-right violence was tarnishing Germany’s image abroad. Now, the government was institutionalising a version of anti-fascism, manifested in community-based initiatives against the Right, as well as so-called Exit-programmes for those wishing to abandon the Nazi scene.

Nevertheless, in promoting the latter, the government was embracing an outlook whereby perpetrators were being “transformed into [victims] of a harmful addiction or internal disease induced, in all probability, by a crisis in masculinity within the white working class”.[63] Such a perspective was in full agreement with a “progressive neoliberalism”,[64] seeking to individualise racism and fascism by releasing both from any connection to social or political structures. The sanctification of former Nazis as recovering victims of something akin to an addiction served to marginalise actual victims, thereby perpetuating the racist state structures that a few years later, would hinder an effective inquiry into the murders committed against migrants by the “National Socialist Underground” neo-Nazi terror group.[65] The reduction of fascism to a pathological question of “political extremism”, on the other hand, predictably facilitated calls by conservative politicians to focus equally on “left-wing extremism”, and – following 9/11 -“Islamic extremism” . 

For the Antideutsche, this mainstreaming of anti-fascism had a contradictory effect. It appeared as if the idea of neo-Nazism and antisemitism as pathologies unrelated to dynamics of class oppression was finally going mainstream. Indeed the idea that anything could be antisemitic, and one must constantly police him/herself for any signs of Jew-hatred would be instrumental for Antideutsch ideas to spread from more radical Autonomen circles into the mainstream youth organizations of the SPD and the Greens. However, the Antideutsche were self-proclaimed enemies of “Germany” and the mainstream in general. A self-professed radicalism and group dynamics meant that new political antagonisms had to be constructed. It was 9/11, the Second Intifada, and the Iraq War, which completely shifted the Antideutsch focus from opposition to German nationalism to a vehement identification with Israel, but also US imperialism as a form of contemporary anti-fascism. A typical example was a Bahamas cover in 2003 unironically titled “Bush – The Man of Peace”, which proclaimed:

The BAHAMAS [sic] congratulates the governments of the United States of America and Great Britain and their allies […] for their swift victory