Voltaire’s Heirs: “The Jewish Question” and the Secular Left, 1840-1953

We find in [Jews] only an ignorant and barbarous people, who have long united the most sordid avarice with the most detestable superstition and the most invincible hatred for every people by whom they are tolerated and enriched.”

Ascribing unlikeable traits to racial heritage? Check. Arguing that Jews are hostile to the societies that heroically tolerate them? Check. Vitriolic prejudice? Check. We are clearly dealing, if not with a bona fide fascist, then certainly with a seriously reactionary racist. Only we’re not. The quote is taken from the “Juifs” entry of Voltaire’s 1764 Dictionaire Philosophique. If Voltaire, who can certainly claim “star status” in the European Enlightenment, was so anti-Semitic, what did that mean for the Enlightenment’s heirs, the rationalists and the secularists? Was Voltaire an aberration, his remark just a strange instance of intolerance within a largely tolerant movement, or was anti-Semitism far wider reaching than conventional wisdom allows?

When I started researching my capstone essay, I thought it would be interesting to compare the different ways Leftist and Rightist political movements used anti-Semitism in the nineteenth century. Yet as I started researching the Right-wing side of the story, I realized the topic had been so comprehensively covered by historians, from so many different angles, there was little I could add to the picture. On the other hand, I was constantly astounded by the breadth and depth of the evidence I was finding for Leftist anti-Semitism. Given that so much present-day anti-Semitism is coming from the Left— have a look at Barney Zwartz and Adam Morton’s Age article detailing attacks on Jews at Australian campuses, linked below— it seemed like a pertinent area to look into.

I ended up widening the chronological scope of my essay to include three “snapshots” of Leftist anti-Semitism. I looked first at the Young Hegelians, the movement from which Marx sprung. Marx and his 1840s contemporaries first indicted Judaism as a religion because, really, it had started the whole bloody monotheism thing, hadn’t it? The Young Hegelians also just couldn’t understand why, in the places where Jews had been granted emancipation, why weren’t they abandoning their rituals, their funny hats, their strange beards; didn’t they want to be like us? Their frustration echoes loudly with that two thousand year old Christian frustration: why won’t those pesky Jews just hurry up and convert!

Of course backwardness wasn’t all the Young Hegelians objected to: Jews were also progressive in a way, but in the wrong way. While nineteenth-century conservatives were stereotyping the Jew as a sinister Bolshevik mastermind, their liberal contemporaries were simultaneously condemning the Jew as a capitalist powerhouse. Apparently no one in the nineteenth-century had much of a nose for irony. Marx’s equation of Judaism and capitalism, and his longing for “the emancipation of society from Judaism” would be carried into the twentieth century by his British followers.

Beatrice Webb and J. A. Hobson are just two of many British Marxist socialists who, in their crusades against class repression and imperialism, drew on Marx’s anti-Semitism, which was itself drawn from the Christian variety. When Hobson asked, in his 1902 Imperialism. “Does anyone seriously suppose that a great war could be undertaken by any European state… if the House of Rothschild and its connections set their face against it?” he was implying that Jewish influence (symbolized by the Jewish bankers the Rothschilds) was more powerful than all of the European states. He wasn’t isolated in his paranoia, either: In the 1800s Webb warned readers that (penniless) Jewish immigrants would exploit and suppress the East End poor with their “superior mental equipment” and “flexible morality”. By stressing the underhandedness of the Jew Hobson and Webb show us that, enlightened as they may be, they still haven’t forgiven Judas.

So far we have been discussing words, not actions. Now let’s have a look at the end of the Stalinist reign in the USSR and see if potentially genocidal anti-Semitism is something limited to fascism. After a decade of mounting official anti-Semitism, in 1952 Stalin tried and executed twenty-three Yiddish writers for their attempt (admitted to be a fabrication by successor governments) “to establish a bourgeois and Zionist republic”; in the infamous 1953 “Doctor’s Plot” a group of mostly Jewish doctors were accused of being hired by an American Jewish organization to poison the Soviet leadership. Historians like Louis Rapoport and Benjamin Pinkus argue this plot would serve as a pretext for the mass pogrom and exile of Soviet Jews to Siberia Stalin was planning. Though he died a couple of weeks later and thus the plan never went into effect, the flurry of anti-Semitic propaganda in the Soviet media, the mass dismissal of Jewish employees from their posts, the spike in anti-Semitic street assaults and even a spike in assaults on Jewish children in Soviet schools, seem to testify to his intentions.

The Stalinist holocaust never happened. So perhaps it makes sense that Leftist anti-Semitism is studied so much less than its Right-wing variant. Yet the fact that it could have happened, and likely came well near happening, unsettles the conventional wisdom which holds that with the defeat of Nazism came the defeat of anti-Semitism.

See For Yourself
Zwartz, Barney and Adam Morton, “An Unholy Alliance,” The Age September 4 2006:http://www.theage.com.au/news/in-depth/an-unholy-alliance/2006/09/03/1157222010013.html?page=fullpage

Hobson, J.A. Imperialism: A Study. London: James Pott and Co., 1902.

Karl Marx on Religion. Edited by Saul K. Padover. New York: McGraw Hill, 1974

Pinkus, Benjamin. The Jews of the Soviet Union. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Rapoport, Louis. Stalin’s War Against the Jews. London: Free Press, 1990.

Wistrich, Robert S. Anti-Semitism: The Longest Hatred. London: Methuen, 1991. (Contains info. about Beatrice Webb)


2 comments on “Voltaire’s Heirs: “The Jewish Question” and the Secular Left, 1840-1953

  1. seanlynch161 says:

    Hey Greer,

    I really enjoyed your post, it provided some interesting insights into an area that I have little knowledge of. What I found especially fascinating was the fact that anti-Semitic sentiment within leftist movements could be traced back so far. The limited knowledge I have on the subject of the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin comes from Timothy Snyder’s ‘Bloodlands’. In the book he seemed to think that Stalin was afraid that because the Jews had a distinctive culture and identity, they had the potential to undermine and become a threat to the unity of the Soviet Union. I thought it was mostly just based on the particular circumstances in Europe at that time, but as you mention within the Marxist tradition there did seem to be a precedent through Karl Marx himself and the Young Hegelians. The best part of your post however is that as you note, it still has resounding influence today with the leftist student movements campaigns, and perhaps even the recent issue with the adherence to BDS by Sydney University’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies. Thanks again for the post and good luck with your studies.

  2. […] did you also know that Hitler’s Final Solution was the answer to The Jewish Question that had been asked in Europe for centuries?  European society had no idea what to do about the […]

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