You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

Gramsci, Yiddish, and Building Cultural Barricades

Lane Silberstein
February 15, 2018

by Lane Silberstein


FAR RIGHT POPULISM is insurgent internationally. Greece and Germany, and of course the United States and Israel, form a part of this wave. This is a deeply disturbing trend for Jews, particularly for those of us involved in political-cultural struggle. This worldwide phenomenon is not reducible to either cultural or economic causes, and with this essay, a mix of personal narrative and Marxist analysis, I mean to broaden the identity politics/class politics binary and introduce the idea that you cannot have one without the other.

When it was announced that fascists had been elected to the German parliament for the first time since the Holocaust, I happened to be watching a documentary about the Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn. Of course, there is a real connection here, not just a coincidental one: as Germany benefits from severe austerity measures imposed on Greece, the far right in Greece capitalized on widespread disaffection to gain power.

I don’t want to elide the differences between these two fascist movements: while it is deeply disturbing that the far right is growing where Nazism started, it is the Greek fascists who have clear, personal links to neo-Nazi thought and activity. But for how long can the Alternative for Germany party (AfD) separate itself from its country’s past? A prominent leader of AfD, Frauke Petry, actually left the party because of its drift further to the right. The rise of fascism in Germany can’t wholly be explained by its economic situation, which is far better than that of Greece.

The far right in both Greece and Germany play on xenophobia, fortifying a nationalist identity which liberals don’t dare challenge for fear of losing their own bases of support. “To appeal today to the liberal mentality of the 19th century against fascism,” said Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), “means appealing to what brought fascism to power.” You can claim to be anti-fascist in the name of proper European identity, but once you criticize the civil society and culture that give rise to fascism, as Horkheimer does, you start speaking a language that liberals don’t understand. Liberal identity politics are vulnerable to exploitation by fascists and are not equipped to counter fascism.

I understand that identity politics, for the most part, begins with something immutable: I cannot change the fact that I am a Jew. However, under capitalism I cannot fully cultivate my Jewish identity. We live under institutions that seek to put us into pre-packaged boxes that uphold the status quo. When the Jewish community claims to care about fighting assimilation, but doesn’t have the ability to discuss whiteness or class issues, and when we raise Jewish children to support imperialist policies in the U.S. and Israel, we reproduce the forces that make us paranoid in the first place. Fascists understand that the bourgeoisie will give them institutional power in exchange for their support. Thus, identity politics and class politics are inextricably linked.

From Birthright to Jdate, Zionists have perfectly understood the necessity of fighting a cultural battle for hegemony over the Jewish community. But the Jewish left is not without its own resources. Yiddish contains a potential for a counter-hegemonic culture -- there’s a reason the Sheldon Adelsons of our community aren’t donating to the Yiddish Book Center. And it is our duty to make these links clear, for our own sake as lovers of Yiddish who wish to preserve the language against the cycles of capitalist crises. There is no point, in my opinion, of studying Yiddish without being political.  


IN THE ABSENCE of robust diaspora cultures, and (often forced) assimilation away from ethnic Jewish identity, Zionism gives diaspora Jews a shallow national identity, one that is acceptable to the liberal, civic nationalist status quo. Capitalism takes Yiddish and Ladino and gives us imperialist, Jewish nationalism. I don’t wish to fetishize or wax nostalgic about Yiddish. Yiddish is not unique; it’s just a language. But it’s a language without an army and a navy, and Yiddish culture in its circumstances, which are unique, can give Jews an important insight; the historical forces which spurred its creation and near destruction enable us to become more political and understand the material bases of reality without which we indulge in romance and myth-making.

Even politically conservative Yiddish lovers must admit that fascism dealt a considerable blow against Yiddish. But as leftwing Jews dedicated to liberation, we recognize that fascism is simply capitalism in decline, and the forces which gave rise to fascism in the first place are still on the attack against mameloshn: in an era of huge wealth gaps, and decreased funding for the arts and grassroots Jewish initiatives, how can Yiddish possibly compete with the power and privilege given to Hebrew? When Steve Bannon speaks at Zionist events alongside Sheldon Adelson, it should be clear that this cultural project which seeks to place Israel and Hebrew front and center in Jewish life is linked to the political forces that also gave rise to Trump.

If capitalism in its decaying form gives rise to fascism, more mundane, everyday forces of liberalism also attack Yiddish and minority languages. Jews have been granted acceptance into Western democracies, but only through giving up cultural differences. Leftists should make our connection to diaspora languages explicit: we wish to fight against the homogenizing forces of nationalism, and we can only do this through a radical economic agenda that protects diaspora cultures. The insistence on “not politicizing things,” or that culture will not be preserved through politicizing, is an act of violence that upholds the seemingly normal domination of everyday life. Luckily, we have Jewish and (non-Jewish) historical traditions to guide us in our struggle.

If the left cares about Jewish liberation not just from fascism, but from the forces that create fascism, we should turn to thinkers who have had first-hand experiences with it. Antonio Gramsci was imprisoned by Mussolini, experiencing conditions that would severely compromise his health and eventually kill him. He is one of the foremost Marxists when it comes to resisting in the political-cultural realm. Gramsci thought in military terms, and noted that when revolutionaries mount a “war of manoeuvre,” a frontal assault against the status quo, they could very well breach preliminary defenses, but then find themselves up against even sturdier “trenches” in the guise of civil society and its cultural norms. Under capitalism, the particular interests of the bourgeoisie are projected across the entire nation, resulting in even the poor calling themselves capitalists. Some ideas are so powerful, Gramsci notes, that they have the character of a real, material force.

Revolutionaries, therefore, must prepare themselves for a “war of position,” shoring up their own cultural forms of resistance, engaging in ideological debates, winning the minds of the masses before mounting an assault. If Yiddish is a diasporic, cultural resistance to nationalism, capitalism makes it very hard to position our resources and organize a liberatory, “national-popular collective will.”

A look at history makes the stakes of this cultural struggle clearer. Eric Hobsbawm, noted Jewish Marxist historian, believed that German culture and civil society during the 1918 Revolution was ready for full liberation from the forces of capitalism. Germany’s Social Democratic Party (the SPD), one of the biggest socialist movements in the world at that time, had made tremendous inroads in building its own proletariat culture. As scholar Peter Pulzer writes, many Jews were active with the SPD:

“Those [Jews], on the other hand, who saw in a new social order, secular and egalitarian, the solvent of Jewish-Gentile conflicts that liberalism and nationalism had failed to provide, also saw in the SPD the vehicle of their salvation. They joined the party, not because of its day-to-day opposition to prejudice and discrimination, but because of its vision of a future in which the grounds for this prejudice and discrimination would have ceased to exist.” 

Despite its strong cultural institutions, the SPD failed to confront the military ethos of modern Germany. Indeed, some Social Democrats betrayed the 1918 Revolution, and had the freikorps -- predecessors to Nazi storm troops -- kill the Jewish revolutionary firebrand Rosa Luxemburg. Hitler would gain prominence only five years later.  


HERE I AM, pictured in Berlin, under a street that bears my surname. It’s named after Raphael Silberstein, a Jewish socialist and doctor who dedicated his life to treating proletarian and immigrant patients. The streets in Berlin named after Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and Walter Benjamin are downtown and more prominent; Silbersteinstrasse is way out east, in an ungentrified neighborhood still populated mostly by immigrants.

It means so much to me that this obscure socialist, the nephew of Eduard Bernstein, rival of Luxemburg (and more on the right-wing side of the SPD), gives his name to a street in the homeland of the Nazis. What Jewish institutions here in the U.S. are trying to name a street after Rose Schneiderman, the Jewish socialist feminist whose comrades died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and who helped secure women the right to vote? The crumbling of socialist cultural bulwarks is what allows Chelsea Clinton to write about labor leader Clara Lemlich without noting she was an ardent communist.

A Jewish community that does not respect the diaspora as a place of legitimate struggle, that does not stand in solidarity with others, is in fact a companion to the rise of fascism. The same mindset that demands fealty to Zionist claims of land and borders, alienating us from neighbors, also becomes apparent in our daily lives and institutions, in a false consciousness in the diaspora marked by loyalty to capitalism and U.S. nationalism. We no longer have leaders who can present a vision for a better future, much less the tools to get there. When rabbis are, on average, the highest paid clergy in the U.S. but also the most liberal, and millionaires sit on the boards of Jewish non-profits meant to help the downtrodden, we inhabit what Marx called bourgeois socialism: “only from the point of view of the most suffering class does the proletariat exist for us.” (By 1917, there were seven different editions of the Communist Manifesto in Yiddish and one in Ladino). Those Jews with historical initiative, those organic intellectuals whose mettle was tested in struggle rather than five years of rabbinical school, were Yiddish- and Ladino-speaking socialists. They were dealt a huge blow by the Holocaust, but are still being repressed by capitalism and Zionism, and their attendant hegemonic forces.

It was in this spirit that some Jewish comrades and myself from the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the largest socialist organization in the U.S. since World War Two, created the Jewish Solidarity Caucus, and wrote a platform calling for defense of diaspora Jewish languages through socialism. We must wage war in both culture and politics; you cannot do one without the other. We have been working closely with the Workmen’s Circle, one of the last, continuously operating outposts of historic Jewish leftism in North America. The fate of the Workmen’s Circle is the fate of the Jewish left: from a membership of 84,000 operating in dozens of locations, they now have 11,000 and operate in 8 cities.

The Workmen’s Circle and the Jewish Solidarity Caucus owe their creation and political outlook in part to the Jewish Labor Bund, a mass movement of Jewish workers that once boasted tens of thousands of members across the world. The Bund’s 120th anniversary was celebrated last  October 7th. On that day in 1897, under illegal circumstances in the historically Jewish city of Vilna, Lithuania -- where Jewish presence preceded christendom in the 15th century -- now the czarist pale of settlement, 13 Jewish radicals met in an attic in a small farmhouse. Some of them were workers, some of them yeshiva bochers and middle class intellectuals -- they were entirely men -- and formed what came to be known as the the Jewish Labor Bund of Russia and Poland (and later Lithuania).

Like the Reform Jews of Western Europe, influenced by the Enlightenment, who set out on a mission to “scientifically” understand Judaism and justify their participation in the emancipated, liberal world, the Bund came about due to their own specific historical context and their oppression as both Jews and workers.

However, their mission was different from the liberals several generations ago in Germany. They sought to understand their world, surely, but they were compelled to radically alter it: to upend normally accepted paradigms, and to chart a radical path forward for true emancipation -- not just for Jews, but for all the toiling masses. The tools of Marxist agitation gave them this ability to understand and change their circumstances. And they utilized Yiddish as a resource in the war of position. They understood political-cultural struggle many years before Gramsci put it into theory.

The Bund wrote in 1907 that they have, “created a Yiddish culture … The first step of the Jewish workers’ movement, the transition from propaganda circles to mass agitation, begins by putting the Yiddish language first … The Jewish masses have not received any cultural legacy from the upper classes [of the Jewish community], neither literature nor art. They have to create this legacy entirely on their own account.”

Yiddish is not Hebrew, Twitter!

The Bund’s commitment to Yiddish pre-dates their official establishment: two years before the Bund was founded, Jewish socialists established zhargonishe komitetn (“jargon committees”) and Yiddish reading circles. And only a year after the Bund was founded, in 1898, they opened their first bookstore, where they sold works that weren’t purely ideological. It can be argued that the entire Yiddishist movement is indebted to the Bund, which put national-cultural autonomy into real-life practice. Even some Orthodox Jews, who wouldn’t find themselves represented by the Bund, such as the poet Yisroel Shtern, recognized the Bund’s contributions to Yiddish culture. (One of the last Bundists in Israel, Yitzhak Ludin, passed away in November).


TODAY, AS IN THE LATE 19TH CENTURY, leftists have to fight simultaneously against liberals who cannot represent our interests as well as against the right. The latter, perhaps more so than liberals, realize the importance of fighting in the sphere of culture: recently, at the Center for Jewish History (CJH), a supposedly neutral institution, the right engaged in a campaign of delegitimization against the new executive director, David Myers, who has the gall to criticize Israel. The embarrassment of the Jewish left is now being broadcast in the New York Times: the American Jewish Historical Society, which is also housed at the CJH, canceled the reading of a play by David Fishback due to right-wing pressure. The Folksbiene, one of only a few remaining Yiddish-language theatre companies, which took its name from the SPD’s Volksbuehne, stages nationalist plays and pays homage to Zionism. But despite its failures, we can also look back to the SPD to try and understand their cultural institutions, as one writer in the new, popular socialist publication Jacobin does.

If we consider ourselves lovers of Yiddish, we must understand the world historical mechanisms of capitalism and nationalism that have lead to the creation of Jewish state which repressed Yiddish; academics interested in Yiddish must be aware that these are the forces that keep their research niche and Yiddish translations lacking. We cannot hope to preserve Yiddish and Ladino culture by endearing ourselves to a ruling class that has no interest in supporting diaspora languages; a ruling class, moreover, that continues to create crises that put these languages at risk.  

As we remember the 120th anniversary of the founding of the Bund, the left cannot allow the Center for Jewish History, its sister organization YIVO, and other Yiddish and cultural institutions, to ossify Jewish history, making it a “memorial tourist agency” as Alain Brossat and Sylvia Klingberg write in Revolutionary Yiddishland. We must refashion for our own purposes what Yiddish professor David Roskies’ calls a “usable past” -- we must plant the seeds for a liberated Jewish future. We can do this in our cultural practices.

“In struggle for people and culture” - Chaim Zhitlovsky

Very few in our community are willing to challenge the idols of nationalism and capitalism. What organ of the liberal Jewish press doesn’t treat these ideologies as foregone conclusions? Socialism and internationalism are still seen as debates rather than a positive vision to build towards. Brossat and Klingberg quote Tucholsky, noting that, “any revolutionary energy that does not find the means to inflect and alter the course of history is condemned to be ‘realized’ in culture,” and become “domesticated.” The issues and politics that compelled Jews to found the Bund must be considered a living example, rather than another prop in the status quo’s cultural hegemony, which is upheld by even well-meaning liberals.

We must be critical of the ways in which capitalism creates “acceptable” Jewish identities, because more nostalgia about the Bund will be unbearable. We must alter even those institutions which claim to act in the Bund’s legacy, who practice toothless tikkun olam, and who cannot comprehend the necessity of a war of position.

In Jewish Currents, activist and rabbi Benay Lappe is quoted in a recent edition as saying, “Judaism in 100 years will be unrecognizable to us. But that doesn’t scare me.” I would put this another way: that Jewish life in 100 years will be too recognizable is precisely what should scare us. Depoliticized Jewishness should scare us. Jewish ritual and identity that conform to U.S. and Zionist nationalism should scare us. When the podcast “Judaism Unbound” looks to Silicon Valley and venture capitalists for inspiration, this should scare us! Concerning Yiddish specifically, Jewish Currents also published an odd piece: in the guise of fighting the Occupation, a writer called on diaspora Jews to give up studying Yiddish in favor of Hebrew in order to better understand Israeli politics and join the fight against right wing Zionism. The irony is clear: the logic of Zionism is so thorough and central in Jewish life, that, in the name of anti-Zionism, this author wants us to give up one of the few cultural-political bulwarks against Zionism.


CONTEMPORARY FASCISTS in Greece, Germany and even here in the U.S. also find themselves confronted by civil society’s trenches. Golden Dawn’s politicians are often arrested, AfD can’t form a coalition in the Bundestag, and Trump’s immigration bans are shot down. As Marxists we know that the economic crises under liberal capitalism organically create these fascist movements. Capitalism is at war with itself. These crises might give the left opportunities to rally our own forces, but we’re starting from an historical low point. We also know that public opinion, despite nostalgia for political struggle that preceded us, is rarely on our side; most of the country did not actually agree with the civil rights protests, for example.

But the self-identified Jewish Resistance is on the move. Many Jews in DSA are close to groups like IfNotNow, a movement seeking to end Jewish American support for the Occupation of Palestine, and Jewish Voice for Peace, which is highlighting the connections between U.S. and Israeli police. These movements of young, energetic Jews must seize the moment to begin laying the groundwork for a liberated Jewish culture; to use the words of a 15 year old yiddish-speaking communist as a metaphor,  “tates, mames, kinderlekh, boyen barikadn.” A Marxist analysis can show us that the support for occupation grows out of the undemocratic nature of Jewish institutions which are holding on to bourgeois respectability and nationalism. What Gramsci teaches us is that where Jews support the Occupation of Palestinian land, they will also wage a cultural war against diaspora languages. We must build our cultural barricades.  


Lane Silberstein is a member of NYC DSA, and has written for Jacobin. He wishes to thank Samuel Greenberg for his editing.