Marxism and the Critique of Antisemitism

Sai Englert and Alex de Jong

01 September 2023

Antisemitism has grown exponentially over the last decade or so. While it has done so in tandem with other forms of racism, oppression, and prejudice, fuelled by a growing global far right, its recent trajectory from the periphery to the centre of Western racist ideas, discourse, and action deserves attention.

In the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century, antisemitism could easily be considered to have become a fringe phenomenon. The Holocaust and its memory were central – as they still are – to Western states’ self-image, not without irony (forgetting in the process that European ruling classes had fuelled antisemitism throughout the continent and supported fascism and Nazism as a counter force to the threat of Communism at home and abroad).[1]

Simultaneously, a newly rising far-right appeared to have abandoned antisemitism altogether – or at the very least having pushed it to the outer edges of its political organisations. This process was most strikingly captured by the struggle within the French National Front (now renamed the National Rally), between Le Pen father and daughter, over the place of antisemitism in the party and the centrality of Islamophobia as a mobilising mechanism.[2]

Yet, perhaps predictably, the stronger the far-right became, the bolder it grew and ideas that were previously considered to be incompatible with ‘dediabolisation’ resurfaced. Antisemitism reappeared more obviously within its arsenal and continues to be normalised as far-right parties take power (Hungary, Italy, Brazil, India) or exert growing influence on elected officials (the US government under Trump and most European countries). We are now in a situation in which antisemitic violence carried out against Jewish people and places of worship repeatedly occur, most strikingly in France and the United States, while antisemitic ideas about ‘globalists’ and other ‘Jewish space lasers’ have taken central stage in the far-right’s rhetoric. They played a central role in the election of Donald Trump, are reappearing in the Tory right, and are now a regular feature in the public pronouncements of the Forum for Democracy in the Netherlands, to name but a few.


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 Left

In the face of such a striking and worrying phenomenon, one could be forgiven to assume that the response of those who claim to maintain the liberal status quo would have been swift and uncompromising. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. While playing into the hands of the far-right on issues of migration, Islamophobia, trans-rights, and law-and-order narratives – thereby severely constraining their ability to challenge its rise – centrist politicians, journalists, and commentators have turned their ire against the left and its support for Palestinian liberation instead. Through conflations of antisemitism with anti-Zionism – itself based on the antisemitic notion that Jews everywhere and the state of Israel are synonymous – pro-Israeli activists and lawmakers have constructed a narrative that the real danger to Jewish people in the West are not those violently targeting them or resuscitating old and dangerous conspiracy theories, but left-wing parties, movements, and organisations. It is worth restating in passing that, more often than not, the very same organisations are at the forefront of the fight against the growth of the former.

While pro-Israeli – or indeed Israeli – politicians continue to cosy up with far-right demagogues (Steve Bannon), far-right governments (Italy and Hungary) or antisemitic politicians (Poland), they simultaneously aim to institutionalise the criminalisation of pro-Palestinian voices and movements as a threat to the Jewish people. They have done so through the widely discredited International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working-definition of antisemitism (most recently rejected by the UN special rapporteur), as well as decrees aiming to outlaw the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement in France, Germany, Austria, numerous US states, Canada, and (so-far unsuccessfully) Britain.[3] 

The story of the “Hijacking Memory: The Holocaust and the New Right” conference is a useful illustration in this regard.[4] Organisers and participants – among the leading specialists in the field – gathered in Berlin to discuss the importance of Holocaust memory and its (mis)use by the political right, including the growing threat of outright Holocaust revisionism. One solitary contribution in the three-day conference came from a Palestinian participant, Dr Tareq Baconi,[5] who pointed out the dangers of weaponising Holocaust memory in order to deny the Palestinian people’s right to liberation. Nothing, at first glance, controversial or out of place given the conference’s stated aims. Yet, first Baconi and then the conference organisers, were accused of antisemitism, dragged through the German press, and the venue where the conference was held was even threatened with losing its funding by the state. The real danger in the eyes of the German establishment were not those weaponising or trivialising the Holocaust. It was the very people targeted by said weaponisation.[6]

The tendency to flip reality on its head in order to delegitimise the left – and any anti-systemic critique that it might offer in a time of simultaneous ecological, economic, and political crisis – was perhaps most visible in the sustained campaign waged by pro-Israeli organisations and right-wing politicians (in both the Labour and Conservative parties) against Jeremy Corbyn.[7] A life-long campaigner against racism and antisemitism was vilified as an existential threat to the Jewish people, while Tory politicians built statues to Nazi-sympathisers and maintained friendly relations with Steve Bannon and Viktor Orban.[8] Unfortunately, many on the left similarly failed to see the wood for the trees and participated in the construction of a narrative of a specific, if not primary, left-wing problem with antisemitism.[9]

This issue is certainly not limited to Britain, or to those who failed to understand the attacks on Corbyn, the left, and the Palestine solidarity movement for what they were. As Leandros Fischer reminds us in his paper, the conflation of antisemitism and anti-Zionism, the characterisation of Palestine solidarity activism and migration as the sources of contemporary European antisemitism, and the failure to challenge the (often pro-Israel) far-right as the key driver of antisemitic reaction has a long history on the left, especially in Germany. In dissecting the political history and theory of the anti-German current, he offers us the tools to understand, critique, and challenge these wider processes that have become so familiar, well beyond the borders of the German state. Jean-Pierre Couture, in focussing on France and the specific history of the systematic (and wilful) misreadings of Marx, recasting the radical thinker and the movements that take inspiration from his thought as antisemites, similarly helps us make sense of the current impasse and the intellectual tools necessary to break out of it.

This is where the impulse for this special issue is located. How to make sense of the contemporary rapid growth of antisemitism, its importance in the rise of the (far-)right, and the striking inability to name, locate, and fight it effectively that has paralysed much of the left? What can Marxism offer us in this process, beyond the well-rehearsed reflections on the Marxist classics of the beginning of the twentieth century? And if these classics remain of importance to our present moment, how are we to understand, engage with, and mobilise them today? How can the left rebuild an analysis of contemporary antisemitism – and social movements against it – which neither counterpose it to support for Palestinian liberation, nor isolate it from wider structures of racialised, gendered, or sexual oppression, discrimination, and violence. It is in the hope of addressing these issues – or at least to offer an impetus to the necessary discussion and debates surrounding them – that we put together this collection of essays. We hope that they will elicit critical engagement, reflection, and responses in the months and years to come.

Marxism and the Jewish Question

When discussing a Marxist approach to the issue of antisemitism, a number of texts are widely shared reference points. This special issue contains papers discussing two of such texts; Marx's essay 'On the Jewish Question' (written in 1843, published in 1844) and Moishe Postone's 1979 essay 'Anti-Semitism and National Socialism'.[10]  Both contain valuable insights but need to be read in their historical context.

Out of all of Marx’s writings, this article might be the most misunderstood. ‘On The Jewish Question’ has often been read as showing antisemitic tendencies in Marx’s thought, or even as proof of the thesis of ‘an antisemitic Marx’ as Couture writes in his article on ‘The French Debate on ‘Zur Judenfrage’: From an Anachronistic Trial to the Crisis of Secularism’. For a supporter of this thesis, like historian Pierre Birnbaum in his Géographie de l’espoir, ‘Marx advocated nothing less than the necessary and unavoidable end of the Jews’[11].

Many readings of 'On the Jewish Question' are in fact anachronistic, missing the emergence of a specific, modern form of antisemitism. As Postone pointed out, ‘modern anti-Semitism’ (a term popularised in Germany in the early 1880’s by the agitator Wilhelm Marr)[12] should not be confused with ‘everyday anti-Jewish prejudice’ – it rather is an ideology, a form of thought, which emerged in Europe in the late nineteenth century.[13] Although building on older forms of Christian hostility towards Jews, modern antisemitism drew on a wider field of references, themes, and identities than only the religious, such as national belonging and ‘scientific’ notions of race.[14] A lack of attention to the historical specificity of modern antisemitism is part of the explanation for the many misreadings of ‘On the Jewish Question’.

To understand ‘On the Jewish Question’, it is necessary to keep the polemical character of the text in mind.[15] 'On the Jewish Question' was Marx’ response to two articles by Bruno Bauer that had appeared in the two previous years, ‘Die Judenfrage’ [The Jewish Question, 1842] and ‘Die Fähigkeit der heutigen Juden und Christen, frei zu werden’ [The capacity of today’s Jews and Christians to become free, 1843]. Before the break between the two authors in 1842, Bauer had been Marx’s closest friend, and he likely exercised a lasting influence on Marx’ conception of critique.[16] Bauer argued that political emancipation entailed human emancipation but would only be possible after the state and its citizens had become ‘emancipated’ from religion.[17] To become ‘truly’ free, the Jews needed to renounce Judaism, and the constitutional state needed to renounce Christianity. Any attempt by Jews to maintain themselves as a group defined by religion was incompatible with such emancipation.

Marx rejected this thesis and argued that the ideas of liberal democracy, such as freedom and equality, in practice are embedded in the bourgeois right to private property:

But, the right of man [menschenrecht] to liberty is based not on the association of man with man, but on the separation of man from man. It is the right of this separation, the right of the restricted individual, withdrawn into himself. The practical application of man’s right to liberty is man’s right to private property.

What constitutes man’s right to private property? […] The right of man to private property is, therefore, the right to enjoy one’s property and to dispose of it at one’s discretion (à son gré), without regard to other men, independently of society, the right of self-interest. This individual liberty and its application form the basis of civil society. It makes every man see in other men not the realisation of his own freedom, but thebarrier to it.[18]

According to Daniel Bensaïd, ‘On the Jewish Question’ marked a decisive moment in Marx’s surpassing of radical liberalism and its illusions.[19] It is the starting point of Marx’s critique of the limits of the French Revolution, of the democratic state, and human rights.[20] In this special issue, Igor Shoikhedbrod shows how Bauer’s opposition to the equal rights of Jews ‘is used by Marx as a foil for dissecting the potential and limitations of political emancipation within the framework of the modern constitutional state’ while simultaneously recognising the necessity of such emancipation, thereby informing a ‘Marxist internationalism – one that is sensitive to the global history of persecution and oppression’.

‘On the Jewish Question’ is first of all a critique of the limits of political emancipation, and was, perhaps unfortunately, of limited use for Marxist movements that were confronted, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with the rise of modern antisemitism. The leaders and thinkers of these movements initially interpreted antisemitism as a response to economic crises and increased competition between different parts of the petite bourgeoisie. One of the most prominent leaders of the German SPD in that period, August Bebel, claimed that only in 1877 antisemitism came out in the open as a political current in Germany. According to Bebel this was the ‘natural effect and consequence of the economic conditions’ that arose after the crash of 1873. It was economic misery and precarity that made the middle-layers of society susceptible to demagogues who scapegoated ‘Jewish’ exploitation. An accident of European history meant that Christian religious hostility against Jews had as an effect that they were over-represented in economic middle layers, in roles associated with finance and trade, and they thereby appeared as convenient scapegoats.

This economic misery was however inescapable as capitalist development increasingly rendered intermediate social layers obsolete. According to Bebel, this meant that antisemitism itself was doomed to become obsolete as its bankruptcy would be revealed by the development of capitalism itself. Even expelling all Jews from German areas, Bebel concluded, ‘would not change the foundations of our society by one inch’; ‘not the Jews, but capitalism is the enemy of the anti-Semitic middle-layers’. It was inevitable that the ‘declining middle-layers’ would increasingly realise this; ‘and they will then come to the realisation that they have not only to fight against the Jewish capitalist, but against the rule of the capitalist class’. At this point, ‘against its will and by necessity’, antisemitism would ‘become revolutionary, and thus play into the hands of us, the Social Democracy.’[21]

Bebel’s faith that the development of capitalism would force even antisemitism to play into the hands of socialism was an extreme example of a belief in progress that characterised much of the Marxist approach in this period. In ‘Rasse und Judentum’ [Race and Jewishness] from 1914, Karl Kautsky likewise expected that capitalist development would inexorably lead to the assimilation of Jews into wider society, thereby dissolving their difference and antisemitic hostility towards it. It had been in the interest of the development of industrial capitalism that the walls around the Jewish ghettos had come down in Europe, and the further development of capitalism towards socialism would end the last vestiges of antisemitism.[22] Antisemitism was the regressive ideology of an outdated petite bourgeoisie, and especially in Tsarist Russia a device with which the state tried to divide the working class. Kautsky denied any historical resilience to the social and cultural distinctions of Jewish populations. Because of their specific social and economic functions and antisemitic hostility towards them, Jews formed a ‘caste’, according to Kausky. Otto Bauer shared a similar approach, explaining the existence of Jews as a national group in historical terms, as supposedly the outcome of their role as merchants in pre-capitalist societies.[23]

‘Only in the ghetto,’ argued Kautsky, ‘in enforced isolation from their environment and under political pressure, without rights and amid hostility, does Jewishness persist.’ Wherever Jews were treated as free and equal, it supposedly dissolved as class contradictions developed among the Jewish population along parallel lines as in the rest of society.[24] The way to their liberation, and hence their assimilation, for Jews was participation in the proletarian class struggle.[25] As individuals, Jews had played revolutionary roles in the workers’ movement, Kautsky recognized, but Jewishness was only reactionary, a ‘feudal remnant’ that ought to disappear ‘the earlier, the better’ for the whole of society, clearing the way for the creation of a higher form of societal organisation.[26]

Bebel’s and Kautsky’s approach was shared by later writers. Otto Heller, a faithful Stalinist, in ‘Der Untergang des Judentums’ [The Decline of Jewishness] (1930) added that the Jewish question was partly a national one. ‘The demise of Jewishness in its social conception’ according to Heller meant ‘the dissolving of the Jewish cast, bourgeois emancipation and assimilation of the Jews in the West; the solution of the Jewish question where it is simultaneously a social and national question, in the East, through the proletarian revolution: all of this destroys the social preconditions for the return of antisemitism’.[27]

As Traverso writes in his survey of the Marxists and the Jewish Question, the ‘classic’ approach to antisemitism probably found its most sophisticated example in the work of Abram Leon, a young Polish Jewish intellectual who was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944 at the age of 26.[28] In his work The Jewish Question, completed in 1942 but published posthumously in Paris in 1946, Leon built on earlier analyses of Jewish history as the outcome of the supposed ‘socio-economic function of the Jews’; ‘Above all the Jews constitute historically a social group with a specific economic function. They are a class, or more precisely, a people-class’.[29] According to Leon, it was capitalism that posed the Jewish Question when, by destroying feudal society, it also ‘destroyed the function of the Jewish people-class’ while being unable to absorb ‘the Jew liberated from [this] social shell’.[30] But this also meant that modern forms of antisemitism were only ‘manifestations of the economic antagonism created by capitalism’.[31] ‘The plight of the Jews has never been so tragic’, wrote Leon, ‘but never has it been so close to ceasing to be that’.[32] Supposedly, ghettos and yellow badges did not prevent ‘the workers from feeling a greater solidarity with those who suffer most from the afflictions all humanity is suffering’. Socialism would open the way for resolving Jewish plight. Traverso observed that Leon concluded the traditional Marxist approach to the Jewish problem, ‘assimilation as a historical trend and an outcome of 'progress'’, ‘at a time when Auschwitz was sounding the death knell for a century of Jewish assimilation’.[33]

It was the horrors of Auschwitz that in the eyes of Adorno ‘makes all talk of progress towards freedom ludicrous’; ‘if freedom and autonomy still had any substance, Auschwitz could not have happened’. Confronted with the direct merger of politics with mass murder in Auschwitz and other camps, such talk becomes ‘the mere assertion of a mind that is incapable of looking horror in the face and that thereby perpetuates it.’[34]  In his contribution to this issue, Traverso considers the work of one thinker who did look the horror in the face, Günther Anders. For Anders, Auschwitz and Hiroshima named the transition to a new historical epoch, one in which humanity itself was ‘exterminable’ (tötbar).[35]

Whereas as the socialist movement historically tended towards a linear vision of progress, there is a need for what Michael Löwy has called ‘a dialectical conception of progress, which takes into account the negative aspect of capitalist modernity’.[36] In his contribution to this special issue, Löwy offers a reading of Kafka as an observer of one such aspect, of a bureaucratic ‘justice’ system ‘crushing the innocent individual under the wheels of the State machine’. In a different view of history Ishay Landa calls to ‘complete the revolution of 1789 and to follow the process of modernity through’ by recognizing the ‘locomotive of world history’ as a force for emancipation.

In a similar impulse to reassess the Marxist classics, Neil Levi subjects Postone’s essay to an immanent critique. Such a critique is all the more relevant because the essay has become a widely cited reference, including among Marxists who otherwise have little in common with Postone’s approach. Part of the explanation is the paucity of Marxist analyses of Auschwitz. While National-Socialism and fascism have been the subject of intense scrutiny, much less attention has been paid to the analysis of Auschwitz and of the processes leading up to it.

Postone’s essay itself dates from 1979. An English translation was published the following year, in New German Critique. The essay starts by examining the West-German response to the televised filmHolocaust and goes on to discuss the lack of attention to Auschwitz specifically in the West-German New Left. Only the second half of the text develops an analysis of antisemitism. According to Postone, this film was the first time that the majority of the generation politicised after 1968 had ‘concretely and viscerally been confronted with the fate of the Jews’; ‘they had known, of course, but apparently only abstractly.’

For Postone, ‘The post-war insistence on not having known should probably be interpreted as a continued insistence on not wanting to know. ‘‘We didn't know’’ should be understood as ‘‘we still don't want to know.’’ Admission of knowledge – even if acquired post factum – would have necessarily demanded an internal distancing from past identification and would have led to political and social consequences. Such consequences would have required among other things that former Nazi-officials could not have continued exercising their functions in the Federal Republic. But rather than an anti-fascist reckoning, ‘the demand was for ‘‘‘normalcy’’ at all costs, one to be achieved without dealing with the past. The strong identification with that past was not overcome, but simply buried beneath a surfeit of Volkswagens’.[37]

At this point, Postone’s essay can be read as an implicit critique of the Holocaust’s use as a universal key to understanding antisemitism as such. The failure to reckon with the specific nature of Nazi-antisemitism ‘was psychic self-denial and repression.’ The German left’s lack of knowledge about concrete Nazi-policies led, on Postone’s assessment, to an incomplete view of National-Socialism. Against this, Postone insisted on the ‘specificity of Nazism and the extermination of European Jewry’ and argued against interpretations of the Third Reich in ‘historically non-specific terms’. According to Postone, German feelings of guilt and shame led to a concern with the Nazi-past but one that avoided ‘the specificity of the past’.[38] In other words, Postone’s essay was not intended to be an analysis of antisemitism in general, nor of murderous, ‘redemptive’ antisemitism, but of specifically National-Socialist antisemitism.[39]

The main argument that Postone developed is that Nazi-antisemitism identified the figure of the Jews with ‘abstract’, financial capital as juxtaposed to concrete ‘industrial’ capital. Where the former was parasitic and rootless, the latter was productive. In Nazi-antisemitism, Jews became identified not only with money and the circulation of capital, as they had been already in pre-existing forms of antisemitism, but ‘were identified with capital itself’.[40] National-Socialism was, in terms of its self-understanding, a movement of revolt.[41] Nazi-leaders described their movement as driven by a ‘great anticapitalist yearning’, even a part of a ‘racial world revolution’.[42] Clearly, this was a very specific form of antisemitism, and an analysis of this form of antisemitism cannot simply be generalised.

Regardless of the value of the analysis developed in the second part of ‘Anti-Semitism and National-Socialism’, attention to the often neglected first part of the text should warn against attempts to use it as a general explanatory model.[43]

What then to make of the widespread use of the text and its analytical categories in ways that ignore Postone’s insistence on the specificity of German National-Socialist antisemitism? ‘Anti-Semitism and National-Socialism’ itself offers a critique avant la lettre of this use of the text; by ignoring the specificity of National-Socialist antisemitism, the antisemitism that had led to Auschwitz, other issues, such as the confrontation with authoritarian policies in the Federal Republic of Germany could be understood ‘as a direct struggle against fascism, an attempt to make up today for the lack of German resistance then.’[44] A similar mechanism can be seen in the contemporary so-called Antideutsch (Anti-German) milieu analysed by Fischer. Although Postone’s essay gained cult status in such circles, Anti-German currents are a stark example of the mechanism of German deflection described by him: attention to the specificity of German National-Socialism is replaced by opposition to a supposedly universal antisemitism. Instead of a reckoning with the German past and its consequences, the current focusses on attacks on the other, foremost on Palestinians and solidarity activists, and, as Fischer shows, a turn towards conformity with German raison d’etat. As Postone wrote in 1979, ‘What happened to the Jews has been instrumentalized and transformed into an ideology of legitimation for the present system’.[45]

Antisemitism, Zionism, and Palestinian Liberation

One important aspect of the contemporary debate – both because of the break it represents with most classical Marxist interpretations of the early twentieth century, and because of its centrality in contemporary public discourse – is the relationship between antisemitism, Zionism, and Palestinian liberation.[46] As already pointed out above, the current dominant narrative propelled by pro-Israeli organisations and politicians, and given material form through IHRA policies and anti-BDS legislation, is that the roots of modern antisemitism are located in the activities of the Palestine Solidarity movements and, by extension, Muslim migrant populations in Europe.[47] In this view, antisemitism is neither a European problem nor one that finds its roots in the classical arsenal of fascism on the one hand, and European nation-state formation on the other.

The so called ‘New Antisemitism’ was theorised around the turn of the millennium by a series of French neo-con intellectuals, some of whom had old roots in the 1968 left, who saw the rise of a new left and militant anti-racist politics in the banlieues as existential threats to the republic – for its stability at home, and its interests abroad.[48] At the very moment when fascism, in the form of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, grew to becoming a key contender in national politics for the first time in post-war history (the same Le Pen who described the Holocaust as ‘a detail of history’), the French right launched a sustained attack on the left and Muslim populations as the key danger faced by Jewish populations in the republic, to great and long lasting effect. In recent years, for example, the Macron government – following in the footsteps of its predecessors – anxious to demonstrate its ability to challenge the now renamed National Rally on its right, took aim at so-called ‘islamo-leftism’ while banning pro-Palestinian demonstrations and BDS initiatives.[49] The echoes with the similarly racist and repressive scarecrow of Judeo-Bolshevism of a century ago are obvious.

In their early and still seminal critique of this phenomenon, Alain Badiou and Eric Hazan identified the centrality of Palestine to this process.[50] The narrative functions in three steps: i) equate critiques of Israel and of French support for it with antisemitism; ii) claim that Jews are therefore under threat from growing support for Palestinian liberation, which in turn pre-supposes a perfect overlap between Jews and Zionism; iii) identify the left and Muslim populations’ support for Palestinian liberation with antisemitism – even (especially?) when those accused make a clear distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. All protestation critiquing Israel’s ongoing colonial rule over the Palestinian people is therefore not only pre-emptively silenced but also further proof of guilt: it is but a trick of the ‘New Antisemitism’ in order to hide its true colours. If, as Bensaïd wrote in 2005, antisemitism can become ‘the anti-imperialism of fools as it once was the socialism of fools’, the policies of the Israeli state and its allies will have done much to bring this about.[51]

Under this narrative, Palestinians and their treatment at the hands of the Israeli state – supported, armed, and financed by western states – are disappeared from view. Their demands are ignored or, worse, immediately turned into suspicious attempts to ‘single out’ the only ‘Jewish state’ in the world. Jewish populations, on the other hand, are made collectively synonymous with Israel and thereby positioned, as a sort of ideological shield, between the states in question and those protesting their imperialist and colonial practices.[52] This attitude points to a much longer-term historical shift in the imposed identification on Jewish populations in the West, under the dual influence of the Holocaust and the creation of the Israeli state.

Indeed, a number of the contributors to this special issue point to these much longer histories, both of attempts to delegitimise anti-Zionism by conflating it with antisemitism, as well as different forms of resistance against it. Salim Nadi, for example, introduces readers to the figure and work of Abraham Serfaty, a Marxist, Jewish, Moroccan revolutionary who thought through the connections between colonialism, antisemitism, and Zionism as a basis for revolutionary politics in the Maghreb. Readers are also presented with a text, previously unavailable in English, where Serfaty illustrates some of these connections and their practical consequences by focussing on the fate of Moroccan Jews, oppressed at home, exploited in Israel, and yet mobilised as cannon fodder by the reactionary regimes in both countries. Only internationalism, solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for liberation, and the reclaiming of a pre-Zionist North African Jewishness can, for Serfaty, offer a road out of the impasse. If the text today reads more like a testimony of a road not taken, it points to a set of strategic commitments which remain nonetheless vital today.

Benjamin Balthaser and Sune Haugbølle also return to the 1960s and 1970s, in the United States and Denmark respectively, to present us with historical examples of how the left engaged in solidarity with the Palestinian people, addressed accusations of antisemitism, and fought to link their struggles together. Similar to their incarcerated Moroccan comrade, these movements developed ways to think about their own liberation in connection with that of the Palestinians – different circumstances linked through the structures of capitalism, racism, and imperialism.

The period that these texts engage with is crucial if we are to understand the changes to the nature of Western antisemitism, which have led to our current moment. Indeed, from the 1960s onwards, Western States shifted their attitude towards Jewish populations.[53] Under pressure from growing anti-colonial movements in the Global South and anti-racist movements at home, Western states re-imagined their history as one centred around the lessons of the Holocaust. Remembering the Nazi genocide –- without acknowledging the collective responsibility of European and North American ruling classes in financing the Nazi party and whipping up antisemitism in their own states – became a way to claim a newly imagined anti-racist identity for the very states that had either organised the extermination of the Jews in Europe, or been the fertile ground for half a century of antisemitic reaction in the run up to it. This white-washed Holocaust memory became, as Traverso has argued, a civil religion. As he warned: ‘Institutionalised and neutralised, the memory of the Holocaust thus risks becoming the moral sanction for a Western order that perpetuates oppression and injustice’.[54]

Indeed, alongside this process taking place from the early 1960s onwards in Western Europe and North America, Western support for Israel could then be constructed not as the continuation of the very imperialist and colonial policies that were being challenged across the globe, but as a form of anti-racist solidarity and a commitment to the most narrow and reactionary interpretation of the slogan: ‘Never Again’.[55] From pariahs and proto-typical enemies of the state, Jewish populations were re-invented by their oppressors of yesteryear as the defenders of Western civilisation par excellence. This defence was mobilised against racialised communities at home, and anti-colonial/imperialist struggles abroad. Far from protecting them or freeing them from oppression, Western states repositioned Jewish populations at the centre of their racist regimes, albeit in an inverted way. The consequences of this approach are all around us. Western states justify their support for Israel as support for an abstracted Jewish community, rather than self-interested imperialist policy. Jews who dissent are cast out. And the many hundreds of thousands who support Palestinian liberation and challenge their own states’ complicity are no longer anti-racist or anti-colonial activists but antisemites.

Antisemitism, Structural Racism, and Oppression

In this context, the analyses which identify, as Aimé Césaire and Hannah Arendt once did, the continuity between Nazi exterminationist policies and those carried out by the different European empires across the globe, help us to undermine these ideological constructions and to rebuild collective forms of solidarity and action.[56] Already in 1942, Karl Korsch noted that: ‘[t]he novelty of totalitarian politics in this respect is simply that the Nazis have extended to “civilized” European peoples the methods hitherto reserved for the “natives” or “savages” living outside so-called civilization’.[57] This approach, far from belittling the Holocaust or antisemitism, points to vital possible alliances in fighting all forms of oppression and exit the system that produces them as necessary to its reproduction and survival.

The question of the comparability of the Holocaust remains controversial and fractious today. Accusations abound that placing the Nazi genocide in the context of the long history of colonial processes of racialisation, dispossession, mass murder, and extermination, is synonymous with undermining its gravity – or even akin to revisionism. Germany, where furious debate has raged over the nature of the Herero and Nama genocide and its connection to the Holocaust for the last decade, once again serves as a helpful example in this regard.[58] As Jürgen Zimmerer has convincingly shown, it is not only appropriate but necessary to put the genocide carried out by German soldiers and settlers in Namibia in the early twentieth century in relation to the Holocaust in order to understand the latter fully.[59]

Whether in terms of the development of ideas of racial superiority and purity, the need for the German Volk to secure itsLebensraum, or the actual overlap in personnel in developing colonial and occupation policy in Africa and Eastern Europe, respectively, or settling the two territories, Zimmerer shows that the connections are as fundamental as they are numerous. This is of course to say nothing of the ways in which Nazi officials, not least amongst them Adolf Hitler himself, were wont to make these connections and comparisons explicit in their thought – from the racialisation and genocide of Indigenous populations in North America to British colonial rule in India.[60] Yet Zimmerer and others’ careful analyses of these parallels has been met with opprobrium in German public debate. To link the history of the Holocaust to that of colonial genocides is, in the eyes of the defenders of official history, paramount to undermine its gravity.

Leaving aside for now what this approach might tell us about the value such commentators attribute to the lives of former colonial subjects across the Global South, it is clear that positioning the Holocaust as an exclusive event, located almost out of time, is key to the process described above: making its remembrance – ritualised and de-politicised – central to Western self-image, cleansing it of its racist past. If the Holocaust remains disconnected – and implicit in this disconnection is the idea that it is ‘worse’ in an imagined hierarchy of barbarism – from the long history of 500 years of genocidal violence across the world, then Western states can reconcile the recognition and remembrance of one, with the disavowal of the others. It is, in fact, very much this question of recognition and reparations for its colonial crimes in Southwest Africa which lies at the centre of the contemporary German controversy.

It is worth noting, however, that another form of comparison has, in certain quarters, become all pervasive. Both Fisher and Miriyam Aouragh discuss in the pages of this special issue the ways in which Palestinians are repeatedly recast as a modern embodiment of the Nazi party. This phenomenon is long lasting and well documented in the history of Israeli depiction of the Palestinian national movement and its organisations.[61] Not only are early Palestinian notables accused of being the ideological source of the exterminationist policies of the Nazis, despite ample historical evidence to the contrary, but Arab and Palestinian national movements are regularly recast as the contemporary expression of this supposed desire, not to free Palestine, but to wipe the Jewish people of the map.[62]

 As both authors show, the tendency to obscure European histories of colonial and racial violence by projecting responsibility for them on their contemporary victims is not limited to Israel. Palestinians, the global solidarity movement, as well as other racialized groups – primary amongst which are Muslim populations in Europe – have been cast in much the same light by the propagators of the ‘New Antisemitism’ discourse. With the Western elites whitewashed and Israel made synonymous with Jewish people everywhere, any critique of the Israeli state can only be read through the prism of the unaddressed demons of the Western collective past. It is not out of Europe that modern antisemitism emerged, in this narrative, nor is it in the re-emergence of its far-right parties and movements that the danger lies. Instead, it is immigrants, Muslims, Palestinians, and their supporters who are ‘importing’ the scourge of antisemitism into the enlightened West. We return once more to the image with which we started: while Jean-Marie Le Pen announced freely on national television that the Holocaust had been ‘a detail’ in history, the French neo-cons argued it was from the banlieues that the danger came.

Comparison and connections are not only important to understand and identify the threat, but also in developing ways to fight it. If antisemitism is one specific expression of a wider framework of reactionary ideas and structures, then the struggle against it also needs to make these wider connections. Both Peter Drucker and Cihan Özpinar direct our attention to these issues. Drucker shows the striking parallels between the place that antisemitism and homophobia have and continue to play in the organisation of fascist and far-right parties. Both were key in the so-called period of ‘dediabolisation’ in the 1990s and early 2000s, when upholding supposed western values such as the equality of genders, religions, and sexualities in the face of imagined reactionary Muslim invasions became central to these movements’ narratives. It is also striking that as the far-right has grown in strength, this strategy has increasingly fallen to the wayside. Özpinar explores the connections between class and racialisation. While working class Muslims are targeted and isolated from wider society through the ‘New Antisemitism’ discourse, Muslim elites are turned into disciplining agents of ‘their’ community. Both processes, Özpinar argues, work in tandem to disorganise and weaken movements of contestation among Muslim populations in Europe.

It is not possible to understand the nature of antisemitism nor its different expressions without placing it within a broader framework of oppression, repression, and racialisation. Failing to do so also undermines the possibilities to challenge it. Put plainly, in the words of civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer: “nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”[63]

Where Next?

The need, then, for an adequate analysis of what antisemitism is, how to recognise it and fight it, could not be clearer.

Although many of the conclusions of the classical Marxist canon have proven mistaken – not least its emphasis on assimilation as a quasi-automatic (or desirable) process that would prove to be the solution to the oppression faced by Jewish populations – its approach, which insists on historicising the problem and confronting it within specific and changing circumstances, remains crucial. Similarly, the emphasis on reading (and fighting) antisemitism as one part of a broader network of oppression and exploitation, so central to the reproduction of capitalism, is one which serves as an important corrective to contemporary tendencies to exceptionalise and de-contextualise antisemitism.

The Marxist tradition and the socialist movement itself should not be exempt from investigation. Brendan McGeever’s work on antisemitism in the Russian revolution is a powerful example of this. Simon Pirani’s review discusses the crucial importance of not-only acknowledging the ways in which the Bolshevik revolution was a crucial step forward in the struggle against antisemitic terror in Eastern Europe, but also to recognise the ways in which revolutionary movements are not hermetically sealed off from the hegemonic reactionary ideas of their time. Here too, reading antisemitism and the struggle against it in a situated, historically informed, and interconnected manner opens up important avenues for analysis.

Although the Marxist tradition has valuable insights to offer, which we hope the pages of this special issue demonstrate, we also suggest that there is a need to overcome a certain Eurocentrism within it, which projects European patterns of antisemitism onto the world stage. Too often have the contributions of non-European Marxists been neglected, as both Nadi and Aouragh demonstrate. The same is true in how we approach the European Marxist tradition and its classical texts. Levi demonstrates in his critique of Postone, how crucial bringing in the wider history of empire, racialisation, and violence is if we are to understand antisemitism effectively.

However, if a Marxist approach to antisemitism is to be fruitful, that is to be useful both analytically and practically, it needs to turn its attention to the present. The late nineteenth century gave birth to a form of antisemitism that emerged out of the racialisations of the colonial world on the one hand and the emancipation of the Jewish populations in Europe on the other. Jewish difference was being made increasingly fundamental, biological even, at the very time when ‘the Jew’ from the mediaeval ghetto was vanishing from view. No longer kept in place by religious persecution but granted civil rights, ‘he’ could be everywhere. No longer defined religiously but racially, ‘he’ could never assimilate. These processes are not those faced by Jewish populations in the present. If Marxism is to be relevant, it must recognise and engage with the new ways in which ‘the Jew’ is being constructed by the material and ideological structures we face in the present.

This introduction and the special issue as a whole give some possible avenues for reflection: connection with Islamophobia, the place of Zionism and Holocaust memory in the projection of Western power, the rise of a new far right, and the shifting class position of both Jewish and other racialised communities, imperialism, and the ongoing crises of capitalism. We hope this special issue will not only reinforce the need to follow these paths of analysis and critique further, but also be a modest contribution to the renewed Marxist engagement with the critique of antisemitism - and the struggle against it.

[1] See for example, Traverso, Enzo 2016, The End of Jewish Modernity, London: Pluto Press, for a longer discussion of this phenomenon.

[2] Peter Drucker’s excellent essay in this special issue returns to this question and discusses a comparable phenomenon in regards to the far right’s relationship with homophobia.

[3] See for example, Rebecca Ruth Gould (2020), ‘The IHRA Definition of Antisemitism: Defining Antisemitism by Erasing Palestinians’, The Political Quarterly, 91(4), pp.825-831, for an overview and critique. For a full timeline see Palestine Legal (undated),’ Distorted Definition: Redefining Antisemitism to Silence Advocacy for Palestinian Rights’, Palestine Legal,

[4] Joshua Leifer’s account, ‘The Challenge of Defending Memory in Germany’,Jewish Currents (7th July 2022) is instructive,

[5] Baconi is the author of (2018), Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance, Stanford: Stanford University Press, and the president of the board of the Palestinian policy Network Al Shabaka,

[6] For an excellent discussion and analysis of the relationship between the Holocaust and the Nakba, see Bashir Bashir and Amos Goldberg, eds., (2019), The Holocaust and the Nakba: A New Grammar of Trauma and History, New York: Columbia University Press.

[7] For a critical overview of this process see Jamie Stern-Weiner, ed. (2019), Antisemitism and the Labour Party, London: Verso; Alex Nunns (Forthcoming),Sabotage: The Inside Hit Job That Brought Down Jeremy Corbyn, Or Books; Ed McNally (2020), ‘Jeremy Corbyn Was Successful When He Stuck to His Socialist Principles’,Jacobin, 7th October,

[8] Zoe Tidman (2019), ‘Theresa May unveils statue of 'virulently antisemitic' first woman MP’, The Independent, 29th November,

[9] See for example, David Renton (2021), Labour's Antisemitism Crisis: What the Left Got Wrong, Routledge; Daniel Randall (2021), Antisemitism on the Left: Arguments for Socialists, No Pasaran Media.

[10] Different versions have appeared of ‘Anti-Semitism and National-Socialism’. The first English-language publication was ‘Anti-Semitism and National Socialism: notes on the German reaction to ‘‘Holocaust’’’, New German Critique 19 (1980), pp. 97-115. A reworked and shortened version appeared in A. Rabinach and J. Zipes, eds., (1986),Germans and Jews since the Holocaust, Holmes & Meier. Moishe Postone (2005),Deutschland, die Linke und der Holocaust. Politische Intervention, Barbara Fried et al., eds., Ça ira-verlag contains a version incorporating different English and German language versions of the essay.

[11] Quoted by Daniel Bensaïd in: Karl Marx (2006), Sur la Question Juive. Présentation et commentaires de Daniel Bensaïd, La Fabrique, p. 25.


[12] Enzo Traverso (2000), Nach Auschwitz, ISP-Verlag, p. 38.

[13] Postone, ‘Anti-Semitism and National Socialism’, p. 106.

[14] Philippe Burrin (2005), Nazi Anti-Semitism. From Prejudice to the Holocaust, The New Press, p. 23.

[15] Detlev Claussen (2005), Grenzen der Aufklärung. Die gesellschaftliche Genese des modernen Antisemitismus, Fischer, p. 99.

[16] Michael Heinrich (2019), Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society: The Life of Marx and the Development of His Work (Volume I: 1818-1841), Monthly Review Press, pp. 286-288.

[17] Ilse Yago-Jung, introduction to Iring Fetscher, ed., (1974) Marxisten gegen Antisemitismus, Hoffman und Campe, p. 15.

[18] Karl Marx, On the Jewish Question, online:

[19] Marx (2006), Sur la Question Juive, p. 13.

[20] Ibid, p. 29.

[21] August Bebel, ‘Sozialdemokratie und Antisemitismus. Rede beim Kölner Parteitag 1893’, online at

[22]  Karl Kautsky, Rasse und Judentum, in: Iring Fetscher, ed., (1974)Marxisten gegen Antisemitismus, Hoffman und Campe, p. 90.

[23]  Enzo Traverso (1994),The Marxists and the Jewish Question. The History of a Debate, Huminaties Press, pp. 76-82.

[24]  Kautsky, Rasse und Judentum, p. 92.

[25]  Ibid., p. 115.

[26]  Ibid., p. 119.

[27]  Otto Heller (1931) Der Untergang des Judentums, Wien/Berlin: Verlag für Literaur und Politik, p. 150. 

[28]  Traverso,Les Marxistes et la Question Juive, p. 225.

[29]  Ibid., p. 226.

[30]  Abram Leon (1970),The Jewish Question. A Marxist interpretation, Pathfinder Pres, p. 258.

[31]  Ibid., 266.

[32]  Ibid., p. 262.

[33] Traverso, Les Marxistes et la Question Juive, p. 243.

[34]  Theodor W. Adorno (2008) History and Freedom. Lectures 1964–1965, Cambridge: Polity, p. 7.

[35]  Enzo Traverso (2020),Critique of Modern Barbarism. Essays on fascism, anti-Semitism and the use of History, Amsterdam: IIRE, p. 48.

[36]  Michael Löwy (2000), Marx’s dialectic of progress: open or closed?,Socialism and Democracy, 14(1), pp. 35-44.

[37] Postone, ‘Anti-Semitism and National Socialism’, p. 99-101.

[38] Ibid, p. 102.

[39] It should be noted that at a later point Postone wrote that ‘modern anti-Semitism’ as such could be understood as ‘as a fetishized one-sided form of anticapitalism’ that ‘biologistically identifies’ Jews with ‘abstract capital’. See Moise Postone (2003),Time, Labor, and Social Domination. A reinterpretation of Marx’s critical theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[40] Moishe Postone, ‘The Holocaust and the Trajectory of the Twentieth Century’, in: Moishe Postone and Eric Santer eds., (2003),Catastrophe and Meaning. The Holocaust and the Twentieth Century, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 93.

[41] Postone, ‘The Holocaust and the Trajectory of the Twentieth Century’, p. 84.

[42] Alfred Rosenberg (2015),Die Tagebücher von 1934 bis 1944, Jürgen Matthäus and Frank Bajohr ed., Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, p. 629.

[43] For one recent critique of Postone’s thesis, also see Michael Sommer (2022),Anti-Postone: or, Why Moishe Postone's Antisemitism Theory is Wrong, but Effective, Cosmonaut Press.

[44] Postone, ‘Anti-Semitism and National Socialism’, p. 102.

[45] Ibid., p. 98.

[46] For a sustained and insightful reflection on the relationships between both over the long durée, see Bashir Bashir and Leila Farsakh, eds. (2020), The Arab and Jewish Questions: Geographies of Engagement in Palestine and Beyond, New York: Columbia University Press.

[47] For an excellent study of these processes see Hil Aked (2023), Friends of Israel: The Backlash Against Palestine Solidarity, London: Verso.

[48] See for example Emmanuel Brenner, ed. (2002),Les Territoires Perdus de la République, Paris: Mille et une nuits; Pierre-André Taguieff (2002),La Nouvelle Judéophobie, Paris: Mille et une Nuits; Pierre-André Taguieff (2004),Prêcheurs de Haine: Traversée de la Judéophobie Planétaire, Paris: Mille et une Nuits; Pierre-André Taguieff (2021),Liaisons Dangereuses: Islamo-Nazisme, Islamo-Gauchisme, Paris: Hermann; Alain Finkielkraut (2003),Au Nom de l’Autre: Réflexions sur l’Antisémitisme qui Vient, Paris: Gallimard; Nicolas Weill (2004),La République et les Antisémites, Paris: Grasset.

[49] Selim Nadi (2021),’Emmanuel Macron’s Government Has Banned Palestine Solidarity Demonstrations’,Jacobin, 14th May,

[50] Alain Badiou and Eric Hazan, ‘“Anti-Semitism Everywhere” in France Today’, in Alain Badiou, Eric Hazan, and Ivan Segré (2013), Reflexions on Anti-Semitism, London: Verso.

[51] Daniel Bensaïd (2005), Fragments mécréants. Mythes identitaires et République imaginaire. Paris: Lignes.

[52] In responses to the imposition of the IHRA working definition in British universities, more than 120 Palestinian and Arab scholars, artists, and intellectuals, published a letter highlighting how their oppression - both historic and present - was being silenced and denied, while the struggle against antisemitism was being undermined by this weaponisation. See ‘Palestinian rights and the IHRA definition of antisemitism’,The Guardian, 29th November 2020,

[53] For a more detailed account of this process see Sai Englert (2018), ‘The State, Zionism and the Nazi Genocide: Jewish Identity-Formation in the West between Assimilation and Rejection’, Historical Materialism, 26(2), pp.149–177.

[54] Enzo Traverso (2016),The End of Jewish Modernity, London: Pluto Press, pp.126-7.

[55]  For a detailed account of the reimagination of the German State as an anti-racist actor and a friend to the Jewish people - via its support for Zionism - see the excellent Daniel Marwecki (2020),Germany and Israel: Whitewashing and Statebuilding, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[56]  Hannah Arendt (1973), The Origins of Imperialism, London: André Deutsch, pp. 123, 138, 143, 218, passim. Aimé Césaire (2000),Discourse on Colonialism, New York: Monthly Review, pp . 35-40.

[57] Karl Korsh (1942), ‘Notes on History: The Ambiguities of Totalitarian Ideologies’, New Essays: A Quarterly Devoted to the Study of Modern Society, Vol. 6 (1942), no 2 (Fall), p. 1-9.

[58] Thomas Rogers (2023) provides a helpful English language overview of these recent debates in his ‘The Long Shadow of German Colonialism’,The New York Review, 9th March,

[59] Jürgen Zimmerer (2006), ‘The Birth of theOstland out of the Spirit of Colonialism: a Postcolonial Perspective on the Nazi Policy of Conquest and Extermination’,Patterns of Prejudice, 39(2), pp.197-219. See also Patrick Wolfe (2016),Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race, London: Verso, for an excellent discussion of modern antisemitism within the general emergence of ‘race science’ and racism.

[60] Jürgen Zimmerer (2008), ‘Colonialism and the Holocaust – Towards an Archeology of Genocide’,Development Dialogue, 50,  p.95. Mahmood Mamdani (2020), Neither Settler Nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, pp. 105-106

[61] Joseph Massad (2006),The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, New York: Routledge. See especially pp.132-134. Tom Segev (1993),The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust, New York: Owl Books.

[62] For a careful and detailed debunking of these arguments see Gilbert Achcar (2009),The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives, New York: Metropolitan Books.

[63] Maegan Parker Brooks and Davis W. Houck (eds.) (2010), The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell It Like It Is,University Press of Mississippi, p.134.



Misperceptions of the Border

Migration, Race, and Class Today

Rafeef Ziadah and Adam Hanieh
This paper addresses the role of global migration and the nature of national borders within the co-constitution of class and race. We begin with Marx’s critique of the value-form – a critique that rests upon a distinction between the ‘essence’ of social reality and its immediate appearances. The paper elaborates how Marx’s understanding of the emergence of a society based upon generalised commodity production leads to a certain conception of the ‘political state’ and citizenship – and thus borders and national belonging. This reveals the distinctive territorial forms of capitalism vis-à-vis those found in pre-capitalist societies, and moves us away from transhistorical conceptions of borders and the nation-state.  In the second half, the paper turns to look at what this conception of borders and migration might mean concretely for how we think about the co-constitution of race and class today. Here the focus is on three crucial aspects of the contemporary world market: (1) the relationship between the cross-border movements of labour and processes of class formation (2) migration and the determination of the value of labour power, and (3) coercive and unfree labour.