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Jews and Utopian Socialism
by Lawrence Bush
“We Jews are, as it were, the sons of the revolution, the daughters of the revolution.
We should be aware of it.” —Leo Baeck, Judaism, 1949
Recently I asked a few people who have a significant stake in our magazine if they thought it might be time for JC to switch its cover billing from “A Progressive, Secular Voice” to “A Jewish Socialist Voice.” The idea had first occurred to me three years go, I explained, as the banking and housing crisis deepened. Newsweek had declared that “We’re All Socialists Now,” and Republicans were labeling as “socialist” every government intervention that President Obama proposed. Isn’t it time, I said, to reclaim and redefine that word — and thereby participate in a worthy Jewish tradition, since Jews have been so deeply involved in the creation of socialist theory and movements?
Not a single one of my cronies, not even the veteran socialists among them, thought it was a winning plan. “More Jews are probably reading Golf Digest than even the Forward these days, let alone Jewish Currents,” one observed. “‘Socialism’ will not open doors to our future. Try ‘social media’ instead.”
Cute, but I’m not entirely convinced. In 2010, a Pew Research poll determined that 28 percent of Americans had a “positive reaction” to the word “socialism” — including 43 percent of people under age 30. A Rasmussen poll during the same season found only 53 percent saying that capitalism is preferable to socialism, while among those under 30, only 37 percent preferred capitalism (with 33 percent preferring socialism and 30 percent undecided). Confine the polling to American Jews and I would guess that socialism’s positives might be even higher, if only for nostalgia’s sake. The word, as the capitalists say, seems to have market value.
Still, there’s no arguing with the fact that socialism as a system has plotzed in our lifetimes. The few remaining self-described Marxist countries are relentless dictatorships that depend for their economic well-being on capitalist market reforms and worker obedience. In Israel, the kibbutzim have swooned, and the country’s gap between rich and poor now parallels America’s. Even the European social democracies, which are often pointed to as “the best we can do” by leftists eager for examples of success, are under dire pressure to strip away their “socialist” benefits and allow their working classes to be steamrolled flat. Only Latin America’s varied experiments with what Hugo Chavez calls “21st-century socialism” (undertaken while the “war on terrorism” distracts the CIA from interfering) are giving encouragement to leftists about the prospect of building large-scale socialism today.
Meanwhile, capitalism somehow manages to reinvigorate itself after each successive crisis — mostly through war, new technologies, and “globalization” to every corner of the world. Capitalism also has shaped the culture, especially in the U.S., in ways that make advocating the shared ownership of society’s wealth seem un-American. The exaltation of competition and individualism go almost unchallenged in the corporate media, while the vocabulary of community and interdependence are largely confined to religious services. What else is there to discuss but individualism, after all, when 28 percent of U.S. households now have just a single occupant — a portion that rises to 40 percent or more in several major cities? Not only socialist economics, but face-to-face sociability itself is becoming obsolete.
At the same time, the emergence of boyish billionaires and overnight sensations in both technology and show biz have revived a rags-to-riches mythology, especially among plugged-in young people. Not everyone buys it, of course, or we wouldn’t have an Occupy movement — or 43 percent of people under 30 polling positive about “socialism” — but the dream of creating the “next big thing,” and the associated ideology of leave-me-alone libertarianism, have certainly captivated a large portion of today’s and tomorrow’s citizens.
To conclude from these “victories” of capitalism, however, that human beings can do no better than produce cool stuff, reward the “winners” and let the “losers” be damned, is to sell our collective soul to the Devil. For while the questions and risks that confront us about socialism are profoundly challenging, they are basically socio-political: how to balance the reality of economic interdependence with the realities of self-interest; how to plan the economy and shift the culture through persuasion, inspiration, and democratic decision-making rather than coercion; how to assure a decent life for everyone without producing a generation of slackers; how to balance the benefits of innovation with the benefits of stability. The fundamental question confronting us about capitalism, on the other hand, seems to be downright existential: how to avert environmental catastrophe while obeying a mandate for constant, heedless economic expansion.
“Socialism or barbarism” — that was the slogan of the Polish-born Jewish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, who wrote from a German prison in 1915 that humanity “is facing the alternative” of “dissolution and downfall in capitalist anarchy, or regeneration through the social revolution.” Luxemburg could not have begun to conceive of such symptoms of “barbarism” as global climate change, international water shortages, worldwide degradation of farmland, and mass human migrations, all of which are feared by scientists today if the carbon footprint of corporate activity is not promptly reduced. The reality that moved her, instead, was the bloody debacle of World War I, which she saw through the lens of “scientific” Marxism as proof that capitalism had outlived its historical usefulness to become a zombie system.
Even as I sit here warning that “Capitalism = Death,” however, I’m doubtful that this really adds up to a compelling argument for risking socialism again. Our imminent environmental crisis, after all, is arguably not the result of private ownership as much as of modern production itself: industrial agriculture, overfishing, oil spills, chemical pollution, overconsumption, and so forth, in a world of seven billion hungry and covetous human beings. Many of these problems could be ameliorated or even solved through a combination of creative science, “green” profit-making, and restraints on big business imposed within a well-regulated capitalist system.
In other words, there is a zone of possibility in today’s world between the “socialism” and “barbarism” that Rosa Luxemburg envisioned. While I flinch daily at the statistics of poverty and heartlessness under capitalism, the fact is that the left did wring some domestic reforms out of the system in the mid-20th century, blunting a few of its most ruthless features and establishing a liberal consensus about government as guardian of the vulnerable and defender of the common good. That consensus — which American Jews very much helped to shape at the grassroots, through the arts, and in government — has been under steady assault since the Reagan years, leaving socialists largely consumed by a necessary defense of liberalism against “government-is-the-problem” ideology.
The questions I’m wrestling with here are whether there is a socialist vision beyond liberalism that is worth touting — a more comprehensive vision of a fundamentally cooperative, compassionate, planned-yet-democratic, “it-could-be-a-wonderful-world” society — and whether any significant sector of Jews, the “sons and daughters of the revolution,” would be willing to risk taking that vision seriously today.
“Vision” is the right word, I think, for while it was “scientific” Marxists who actually made revolutions in the 20th century, my own sense (fueled by conversations with many veteran Jewish leftists) is that much of the Jewish allegiance to the left was prompted less by a belief in the historical dialectic, or a commitment to class revolution, than by an idealistic vision of fairness, kindness, international solidarity, and immense possibility — a prophetic vision, if you will, of a perfectible society of justice and compassion for all. Certainly, the hero of Jewish leftists was Karl Marx, and his call for a proletarian uprising stirred the blood of a rapidly proletarianized Jewish people — but their motivating sentiments, particularly in the face of their own upward mobility in America, more resembled what Marx and Engels derided in their 1848 Communist Manifesto as “utopian socialism.”
The utopians, wrote Marx and Engels, were “conscious of caring chiefly for the interests of the working class as being the most suffering class,” but “want[ed] to improve the condition of every member of society” through an evolutionary journey to socialism — for “how can people,” The Communist Manifesto mocks, “when once they understand their system, fail to see in it the best possible plan of the best possible state of society?”
Among the utopian socialists whom Marx and Engels knew best and ultimately disdained most was Moses Hess (1812-1875), with whom Marx briefly worked as a newspaper man in the Rhineland. Although a mostly forgotten figure today, Hess is described by Isaiah Berlin (in Ezra Mendelsohn’s Essential Papers on Jews and the Left) as playing “a decisive role” in the history of communism and “virtually invent[ing]” Zionism. The first task was achieved when this “first and fieriest German Hegelian to turn communist” introduced both Marx and Engels to fundamental ideas about the abolition of private property and the creation of a classless society. The second task was fulfilled by Hess’ authorship of Rome and Jerusalem, published one hundred and fifty years ago, in 1862.
Hess greatly admired Marx, but his own brand of socialism was distinctly unscientific. He believed in socialism, writes Isaiah Berlin, not for the sake of “the inexorable demands of history, nor the emergence of a particular class . . . but quite simply [because] socialism is just.” Berlin continues:
[Hess] is a socialist, indeed a communist, because he thinks that all . . . domination . . . is destructive of the human personality and frustrates master and slave alike, inasmuch as individual faculties can never be developed fully in conditions of competition . . . History for him is a struggle of self-assertive egotism (of individuals or classes or nations) with the opposite principles of altruism, love and social justice . . . qualities [that] flow from man’s true nature. . . .
Hess was also affirmative about Jewish religious and national identity in Rome and Jerusalem, believing that “All of past history was concerned with the struggle of races and classes” (he uses “race” here as comprising both national and ethnic identities, as was common in his day). “Race struggle,” he declared, “is primary; class struggle is secondary.” The building of the Jewish nation, therefore, was as important a task to Hess as the building of the proletarian movement. Such a statement, directly contradicting the first sentence of Chapter One of The Communist Manifesto (“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle”), established him as a forerunner to Zionism, Bundism, and other Jewish tendencies that sought not the disappearance of the Jews into a liberated society but the preservation and rehabilitation of Jewish identity in the course of the struggle for socialism. The statement also consigned Hess to the same purgatory to which Leon Trotsky would later consign the Mensheviks — “the dustbin of history.”
Buried by Marxist scorn, Hess’ utopianism (he called it “spiritual socialism”) nevertheless seems oddly contemporary, and makes me to want to read others of his forgotten utopian-socialist breed. His emphasis on human character and morality as crucial ingredients for the building of a successful socialism (and vice versa) seems prescient, as if Hess had anticipated the disaster that would befall revolutions that permitted power-hungry men to rise to the top of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” For all the sentimentality, religiosity, and grandiosity that make it hard to take Rome and Jerusalem quite seriously, Hess earns my interest and admiration by expressing, in Berlin’s words, the belief that unless the revolutionary redistribution of wealth “is carried out with full moral realization of what its purpose is, it will achieve nothing. . . . There must be a change of heart.”
Now, stand this perspective right alongside Charles Eisenstein’s in the May/June issue of Adbusters, the Canadian magazine that originally sparked and still inspires the Occupy movement:*
We protest not only at our exclusion from the American Dream; we protest at its bleakness. . . . [I]f the wealth of one must be the debt of another; if it entails sweatshops and underclasses and fracking and all the rest of the ugliness our system has created, then we want none of it. . . . Ultimately, we are protesting not only on behalf of the 99% left behind but on behalf of the 1% as well. We have no enemies. We want everyone to wake up to the beauty of what we can create.
Moses Hess lives! Utopianism is in the air! Maybe our masthead should read, “A Jewish Utopian Socialist Voice”?
Before I slip further from the sublime to the ridiculous, there’s a question begging to be answered: Why were so many of our Jewish predecessors in Europe, America, and Palestine drawn to socialism? — or, to rephrase that with an eye to the future: What has changed so much for Jews that it would probably marginalize JC to identify itself as “socialist” instead of “progressive?”
A wide-ranging literature exists on the subject of the Jewish involvement with socialism, which I have no time, vey iz mir, to add to my new utopian-socialist reading list. Fortunately, the late Arthur Liebman did the reading for us, as reflected in his ever-valuable 1979 book, Jews and the Left, in which he critiques three theories before proposing his own. Very briefly, with two of the three theories compressed into one:
1) The “Anti-Semitism” and “Historical-Traditional” Theories. Both of these link the Jewish alignment with socialism to the oppression of anti-Semitism. Since it was the right-wing political parties in Europe that championed traditional Christianity and its anti-Semitic baggage, Jews moved to leftwing parties, which combated anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice and saw class, not ethnicity, as the basis of solidarity. “In the bosom of the socialist movement,” writes Liebman, Jews “were no longer despised and crippled . . . but free, equal, and modern . . . inspired by a secular messianic mission to create a free, equal, and modern society . . .” He notes that certain brands of socialism even promised to provide “self-hating Jews . . . with a way of striking back or destroying their hated community of origin” by making Jewish identity seem obsolete.
Liebman considers this view to be “not devoid of merit,” but then notes that, given the ubiquity of anti-Semitism, “most Jews in most European countries . . . should [therefore] have been radicals,” which “has not been the case. . . . In fact, there seems to be no strong correlation between the degree and extent of anti-Semitism and the proportion of Jews identifying with radical politics.” Indeed, he observes, there was even an increase in leftwing activism among Jews who actually put distance between themselves and the reactionary parties of Europe by coming to America.
2) The “Judaic” Theory of Socialism. Liebman describes this as the assumption that “Jewish radicalism flowed from the religion and religious experiences of the Jewish people” thanks to “similarities between socialism and Judaism in broad themes and general outlines.” He critiques the theory by pointing to the fact that many of the Jews most involved in socialist movements were highly assimilated — in the case of Karl Marx, baptized! — and ignorant of Jewish religious teachings; that many other Jews have interpreted the same tradition to reinforce conservative views and values; and that the most deeply religious Jewish communities have usually opposed left movements.
I’ve expounded this “Judaic” argument several times in JC and will try to give it new credence in the third and final installment of this article. Suffice it here to note that Liebman ignores at least one “background” element of Judaism that goes beyond specific mitsves or texts. I am thinking of the historical nature of the Jewish religious narrative. Whereas the sacred story of the Christian majority transcends history — through a messiah who redeems humanity across the ages and even conquers death, the most temporal boundary of all — Judaism’s sacred narrative emphasizes the continuity of a singular people within history, and a God who acts through history.
The possible significance of this difference between Christianity and Judaism was crystallized for me by our contributing writer Dick Flacks’ 1988 book, Making History, in which he distinguishes between “action directed at the sustaining of everyday life,” which consumes most of the energy of the great majority of people, and “action directed at the making of history,” which is the province of political activists (and of “the masses” when such action seems necessary to defend their resources and status). Perhaps, in fact, there is a mentality among Jews for “making history,” for taking ourselves seriously as historical agents, which is, indeed, rooted in Judaism, woven into Jewish culture, and transmitted through family culture — even to the most assimilated Jews.
Be that as it may, Liebman judges both “anti-Semitism” and “Judaism” to be inadequate explanations for the disproportionate Jewish involvement in socialist movements. He builds upon these theories, however, to posit his own: first, that “class-linked factors enabled and motivated largely working-class Jews at the turn of the [20th] century and for some years thereafter . . . to make Left political choices and to build a radical subculture,” and second, that “once in place, this radical subculture . . . functioned to create, recreate, and sustain a vital link between the Jews and the Left.”
Dick Flacks helps illuminate this argument as well, for in Making History he defines the American left’s most singular success as the creation of an “adversary culture” that “embodies themes of struggle, resistance, and liberation” — and that probably influenced the American mainstream more than any on-the-ground left organizing effort. This “adversary culture” was embodied not only in some of America’s finest writings, film, music, etc., but in organized cultural networks and “fraternal” organizations — very prominently so among leftwing Jews.
“When the organized left has had significant appeal,” Flacks concludes, “it has provided . . . a ‘framework for self-development’ . . . [for] growth in the capacity of the individual to find and express meaning in his or her life, to believe that one’s life counts both for specific others and for some larger, historically relevant purpose . . .”
Shades of Moses Hess . . .
In today’s world, of course, anti-Semitism has both diminished and shifted its primary locus from Europe to the Middle East. Rightwing political organizations, outside of neo-Nazi circles, only rarely dabble in anti-Semitism. Jewish class identity is no longer proletarian — far from it in the U.S. — and Jews are contending with the ethics of power, rather than powerlessness, for the first time since the Hasmonean dynasty was established by the Maccabees. The Jewish preoccupation with Israel’s well-being has placed universalist and even economic justice concerns on the back burner for the mainstream Jewish community. In short, none of the factors credited by Arthur Liebman with creating a groundswell of socialist identification among Jews are still with us. Moreover, the Jewish variety of “radical subculture” that he described in 1979, which gave substance and continuity to Jewish socialist consciousness, was already quite diminished then and is even further diminished now. (Our magazine is one of its only remaining national institutions.)
To my stubbornly idealistic mind, however, these changed conditions do not spell the end of the Jewish-socialist connection, but demand a new beginning — rooted in a Jewish utopian-socialist sensibility that makes “vividly present,” to use Moses Hess’ antiquated words, “the belief in the divine unity of life and in the future brotherhood of all men.” Our “new beginning” requires us to ask questions that challenge the competitive ethos of capitalism and its idolatrous worship of the Almighty Dollar.
It requires us to unveil those aspects of the Jewish tradition — shabes, tsedoke, liberation from slavery, communal responsibility, etc. — that inspire a countercultural perspective and a belief that the world might, indeed, be organized to better serve human beings, and vice versa, than under a system of private profit-making and oligarchic power.
Our new beginning requires us to recall not only the crimes and pitfalls of yesterday’s socialisms, but also the unmatched heroism of the Jewish left during the Holocaust, as well as the socialist idealism that helped mold the state of Israel. Our new beginning requires us to work to beautify that state with peace, and to heal the Jews of their terror of annihilation. Nearly two millennia ago, when the might-makes-right mystique of Rome was dominant in the world, one of the Talmudic sages observed that “All the calculated dates of redemption have passed, and now the matter depends upon teshuve and mitsves” — repentance and Jewish good deeds. In our own era, the calculated dates of redemption have again passed.
Still, the “mystique of Rome” cannot and should not satisfy us. Instead, our task is to figure out what sort of “repentance and good deeds” will help awaken our mentshlikhkayt, our full humanness — to make ourselves, the sons and daughters of the revolution, worthy of creating a better revolution in the next go-’round.
Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents and is the author of Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books.