With the reemergence of classic antisemitism and the apparent inability of American civil society to comprehend it other than as another hurtful personal “prejudice,” I think it’s worthwhile to recall a little of its history since it first emerged as a political ideology in the late 19th century.
“Antisemitism is the socialism of fools,”— Many are probably familiar with the famous saying, misattributed to August Bebel, one of the founders of the German Social Democratic Party. And probably even over a century later the meaning of this is still reasonably clear. Then as now, antisemitism had a populist flavor: it was a kind of spurious egalitarianism directed against a conspiracy of wealth and power. But antisemitism was also a competitor with socialism as a political ideology and worldview. Just about everybody knows that that the full name of Hitler’s party was “National Socialist German Workers’ Party.” The explanation that’s often given for that fact is that the Nazis were just propagandistically appropriating labels that had nothing to do with their actual doctrine. There is certainly something to that and this is often the go-to recourse for leftists that are constantly having to fend off the semi-literate right-wing line that Nazism and fascism are “actually left wing” because of the presence of the word “Socialist” in NSDAP. I sympathize with that, but the relationship between socialism and antisemitism is in fact more complicated and the idea of a “national socialism” possessing a distinct antisemitic dimension pre-dates the Nazi party by a generation.
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In an 1890 letter reproving a Social Democratic comrade for playing around with antisemitism, Frederick Engels writes, “anti-Semitism betokens a retarded [in the sense of backwards and regressive, not in the sense of mentally disabled —J.G.] culture, which is why it is found only in Prussia and Austria, and in Russia too. Anyone dabbling in anti-Semitism, either in England or in America, would simply be ridiculed, while in Paris the only impression created by M. Drumont’s writings – wittier by far than those of the German anti-Semites – was that of a somewhat ineffectual flash in the pan.” He goes on to say, “Hence anti-Semitism 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. The very fact of its existence in a region is proof that there is not yet enough capital there.”
Suffice it to say, Engels materialist analysis of antisemitism’s appeal was not quite right: shortly after he wrote this letter, antisemitism would explode in Paris and M. Drumont’s writings would reach a much larger audience. But his notion that antisemitism was a kind of reactionary version of socialism stands up to more scrutiny.
But why did Engels feel the need to make this case to a comrade? The fact is that the socialist movement was unsure of how to interpret the emergence of antisemitism as a mass movement around 1880: on the one hand, it sounded socialist sometimes with its tirades against wealth and social inequality, on the other, it seemed to have plainly regressive parts. Some socialists welcomed antisemitism as a positive development: although it wasn’t quite right, it showed a potential stirring of anti-capitalist energy. “When the Austrian anti-semites first embarked upon their anti-Jewish campaign, the earliest reaction of Kautsky and Victor Adler [who was Jewish—J.G] was that however crude these excesses, they contained more than a grain of revolutionary potentiality: they were a sign that the masses were awakening from their fatalistic slumber and were daring to protest against social evils and the rule of their social betters,” writes J.L. Talmon. Michel Winock records a similar situation in France: even the Jewish far-left politician Alfred Naquet believed that antisemites created “an opening” that the Socialists could pass through. Drumont’s mammoth antisemitic book La France juive was received with curiosity by the French left, although they might quibble with its excessive focus on one aspect of capitalism. It was really not until the Dreyfus Affair that antisemitism appeared in a definitively reactionary light.
There are, in fact, closer ties between the socialist tradition and antisemitism. The reader might be familiar with Marx’s early work On the Jewish Question, which indulges in crude stereotyping and nasty language. But the most stringently anti-Jewish section of the socialist movement was the non-Marxist side, which tended to imagine a bucolic, agrarian socialism and and to regard the birth of capitalism and city-life as evils of modernity to be conclusively defeated rather than overcome dialectically. Here is Talmon again:
Proudhon was enamoured of the French peasants and artisans and loathed all foreigners. Bakunin, to whom the authentic revolutionary was not a man who reasoned and planned but a creature of instinct, looked successively for salvation to the unspoilt spontaneous Slavs, the rebellious Russian peasants of Pugachev and Stenka Razin, primitive bandits, and finally to déclassé outcasts of all kinds, including criminals whose passion for destruction (the necessary condition for total reconstruction) was unhampered by possession or vested interests. For both Proudhon and Bakunin it was a short step from populism to racism, to the hatred of whole racial or national groups in defiance of the universality o f the socialist ideal. al. Thus Bakunin could describe the Jews as “an exploiting sect, a blood-sucking people, a unique, devouring parasite tightly and intimately organised . . . cutting across all the differences in political opinion“. But no one could have gone further than Proudhon: “Jews—Write an article against this race which poisons everything, by meddling everywhere without ever joining itself to another people. Demand their expulsion from France, with the exception of individuals married to Frenchwomen. Abolish the synagogues; don’t admit them to any kind of employment, pursue finally the abolition of this cult. It is not for nothing that the Christians called them deicides. The Jew is the enemy of the human race. One must send this race back to Asia or exterminate it.
Both of these men were involved in personal conflicts with Marx and did not hesitate to attribute their disagreements to Marx’s Jewishness. To summarize, whenever egalitarian ideals of socialism mixed with nostalgic and sentimental celebrations of pre-modernity or spontaneous plebeian virtue the result tended to be antisemitic, the Jews being the convenient symbol of modernity itself.
From its inception, antisemitic “national socialism” was a doctrine of militant, plebeian anti-liberal democracy and tried to hitch itself to a Caesarist figure. Drumont, France’s premier antisemite, was a supporter of General Boulanger’s failed coup against the Republic, itself representing a confusion of left and right themes, although Boulanger’s movement was not antisemitic and included Jews. George Mosse:
A Boulangist, though the General himself had little use for him, Drumont believed that political change was the essential prerequisite for France’s salvation. The Third Republic, dominated by Jews, had to be abolished and replaced by a plebiscitary democracy governed by a strong but popularly elected “supreme ruler.” Such a ruler, consulting with the people from time to time through plebiscite, would solve the Jewish problem and create unity on the basis of a powerful national mystique.
As we can see, national socialists have always dreamed of Hitlers, even when such a phenomenon was not yet historically possible. Antisemitism has fundamentally always been an antidemocratic ideology with popular affectations: it attempts to poison and denigrate democratic society by portraying it as racially unclean and always secretly dominated by an occult interest.
Although it garnered curiosity on the Left, antisemitism was always past-looking and essentially a doctrine of the reactionary right and was quickly recognized as a useful tool by that side. The luster of Monarchism and Bonapartism had faded, democracy was ascendant, capitalism created social problems that needed an answer, class struggle was a social fact, the nation required a unifying symbol—antisemitism served this purpose well. Michel Winock:
…this was the true political function of anti-Semitism: as soon as indigent mobs—small businessmen and artisans victimized by the economic evolution—exploited workers, and peasants forced to leave the countryside were shown the Jew was responsible for all their ills, social conservatives had an inestimable weapon. Deriving strength from their control of the press, they orchestrated the developing myth for their own use. Class conflicts vanished: there was now nothing but the minority of Jewish profiteers crushing the vast majority of their Aryan and Catholic victims.
Talmon puts it similarily: “The secular religion of militant nationalism seized upon the anti-capitalist and anti-socialist brand of anti-semitism as an antidote to proletarian cosmopolitan socialism, as the most effective means of weaning the working classes from the ideas of class war and Marxist internationalism.” Its intrinsic incoherence allowed for the preservation of capitalism while indulging in anti-capitalism rhetoric and themes: the problem was not the system as such, just this particular race. One could praise entrepreneurship and ingenuity of Aryan capitalists, while at the same time attacking the exploitation and trickery of Jewish capitalists. In fact, it is this ability to reconcile opposites and simplify the political terrain that gives antisemitism its political strength. As Charles Maurras, founder of Action française, wrote, “Everything seems impossible or terribly difficult without the providential appearance of antisemitism. It enables everything to be arranged, smoothed over and simplified.”
Another way to think of antisemitism, with its obsession with Jewish physiognomy and its heavy use of racist caricature, is that it’s fundamentally a cartoon ideology. In place of the complexity of social forces and history, it gives a cabal of super-villains, ugly-looking bad guys with a funny voices. It speaks to a fundamentally childish and regressive worldview: a nation or people that was perfect in the past is tarnished by something straightforwardly evil that represents an upsetting and confusing modernity taking away “what they had.” And like a cartoon, it is clear in its outlines and relatively simple to both grasp and transmit. It looks for heroic “savior figures” in the form of strongmen and dictators. To those who don’t share the outlook these appear to be buffoonish types whose attraction is difficult to understand. In fact, the entire doctrine can appear ludicrous and difficult to take seriously. The understandable temptation is to make light of it and associate it with idiocy, which to an extent is true. With that comes the bohemian tendency to play around with it “ironically” to signal superiority to both its stupid adherents but also to the bourgeois respectability that reviles it.
Antisemitism is sort of an obscene graffito scrawled on the bathroom wall of bourgeois society. But it also has something of an air of mystical hocus-pocus and the direct, graphic power of occult symbols, like say, the swastika. Like cartoons, it is also plastic: shapeable and moldable to new conditions and subject to limitless morphological variation. Fans of other simplistic renderings of society will have a tendency gravitate to the world of antisemitic vignettes as providing more vivid and pornographic kicks. (Here it’s worth noting Kanye West’s apparent addiction to pornographic movies and the growth of antisemitism on message boards otherwise dedicated to sharing pornography, and often anime porn at that.) Antisemitism is the real hard-core stuff: the soft-core populist enjoyment of sticking it to elites does not come close to the air of sinister, stalking murderousness one can indulge in with antisemitism. The highs are more intense and satisfying. With antisemitism in one’s possession one can suddenly, with very little effort, terrorize and menace. It can feel like possessing power itself. Rejection by polite society seems to only confirm “the truth” or at least the effectiveness and power of the idea. As such, it will always be a favored technique of charlatans and hucksters who promise to reveal “hidden secrets” about the world.
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Just a wonderful piece John. There is a book “Anti-Judaism” which I’ve been meaning to read and which I think elaborates on this.
Here is the antisemite Georg Gadow attacking Emil du Bois-Reymond in 1883 and confirming your point on how antisemites have always longed for dictators:
Es ist wohlfeil, die „Verein deutscher Studenten“ an die Rockschöße einer politischen Partei zu hängen; ein Gebahren, das freilich bei dem strebsamen Schildknappen eines Eugen Richter nicht auffallen kann. Die „Verein deutscher Studenten“ sind so wenig „politisch“ in dem heute geltenden Sinne, daß sie vielmehr in dem instinktiven Widerwillen gegen die kleinliche Interessenpolitik des, die nationale Einigkeit in einem Dutzend von Fractionen und Fractiönchen illustrirenden Parlaments eine der Hauptwurzeln ihrer Kraft besitzen. Und wahrlich, die Zeit wird kommen, in welcher eine, unter den unauslöschlichen Eindrücken des nationalen Einigungswerkes aufgewachsene Generation die noch in den Vorurtheilen der Tage der Schwäche und Schmach befangenen Parlamentshabitués ersetzen wird.“
Source: Die Freiheit der Wissenschaft und Herr Dubois-Reymond. Eine zugleich an die Adresse des Herrn Max Spangenberg, ehemaligen Vorsitzenden der „Freien wissenschaftlichen Vereinigung“ a. d. Universität Berlin, gerichtete, aber nicht „im Auftrage“ herausgegebene Betrachtung (Giessen: Fehsenfeld, 1883), p. 30.