160 years on: Marx and the Jewish question
In the last issue of this Review we published an article on Polanski’s film The Pianist, whose subject was the uprising of the Warsaw ghetto in 1943 and the Nazi genocide against Europe’s Jews. Sixty years after the unspeakable horrors of this campaign of extermination, one might have expected to find that anti-Semitism was a thing of the past – the consequences of anti-Jewish racism being so clear that it would have been discredited once and for all. And yet this is not at all the case. In fact, all the old anti-Semitic ideologies are as noxious and as widespread as ever, even if their main focus has shifted from Europe to the “Muslim” world, and in particular, to the “Islamic radicalism” personified by Osama Bin Laden, who in all his pronouncements never fails to attack the “crusaders and Jews” as the enemies of Islam and as suitable targets for terrorist attack. A typical example of this “Islamic” version of anti-Semitism is provided by the “Radio Islam” website, which has as its motto “Race? Only One Human Race”. The site claims to be opposed to all forms of racism, but on closer inspection it becomes clear that its main concern is with “Jewish racism towards non-Jews”; in fact, this is an archive of classical anti-Semitic tracts, from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Czarist forgery from the late 19th century which purports to be the minutes of a meeting of the world Jewish conspiracy and was one of the bibles of the Nazi party, to Hitler’s Mein Kampf and the more recent rantings of the Nation of Islam leader in the USA, Louis Farrakhan. tc "In the last issue of this Review we published an article on Polanski’s film The Pianist, whose subject was the uprising of the Warsaw ghetto in 1943 and the Nazi genocide against Europe’s Jews. Sixty years after the unspeakable horrors of this campaign of extermination, one might have expected to find that anti-Semitism was a thing of the past – the consequences of anti-Jewish racism being so clear that it would have been discredited once and for all. And yet this is not at all the case. In fact, all the old anti-Semitic ideologies are as noxious and as widespread as ever, even if their main focus has shifted from Europe to the “Muslim” world, and in particular, to the “Islamic radicalism” personified by Osama Bin Laden, who in all his pronouncements never fails to attack the “crusaders and Jews” as the enemies of Islam and as suitable targets for terrorist attack. A typical example of this “Islamic” version of anti-Semitism is provided by the “Radio Islam” website, which has as its motto “Race? Only One Human Race”. The site claims to be opposed to all forms of racism, but on closer inspection it becomes clear that its main concern is with “Jewish racism towards non-Jews”; in fact, this is an archive of classical anti-Semitic tracts, from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Czarist forgery from the late 19th century which purports to be the minutes of a meeting of the world Jewish conspiracy and was one of the bibles of the Nazi party, to Hitler’s Mein Kampf and the more recent rantings of the Nation of Islam leader in the USA, Louis Farrakhan. "
Such publishing ventures – and they are assuming massive proportions today – demonstrate that religion today has become one of the main vehicles for racism and xenophobia, for stirring up pogromist attitudes, for dividing the working class and the oppressed in general. And we are not talking merely about ideas, but about ideological justifications for real massacres, whether they involve Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats or Bosnian Muslims in ex-Yugoslavia, Protestants and Catholics in Ulster, Muslims and Christians in Africa and Indonesia, Hindus and Muslims in India, or Jews and Muslims in Israel/Palestine.
In two previous articles in this Review – “Resurgent Islam, a symptom of the decomposition of capitalist social relations” (International Review n°109) and “Marxism’s fight against religion: economic slavery is the source of the religious mystification” (International Review n°110), we showed that this phenomenon was a real expression of the advanced decomposition of capitalist society. In this article we want to focus on the Jews in particular. Not simply because Karl Marx’s famous essay On the Jewish Question was published 160 years ago, in 1843, but also because Marx, whose entire life was dedicated to the cause of proletarian internationalism, is today being cited as a theoretician of anti-Semitism - usually disapprovingly, but not always. The Radio Islam site is again instructive here: on it, Marx’s essay appears on the very same web page as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, even if the site also publishes Der Sturmer type cartoons insulting Marx for being a Jew himself.
This accusation against Marx is not new. In 1960 Dagobert Runes published Marx’ essay under his own title A World Without Jews, which implied that Marx was an early exponent of the “final solution” to the Jewish problem. In a more recent history of the Jews, the right wing English intellectual Paul Johnson raised similar charges, and did not hesitate to find an anti-Semitic component in the very idea of wanting to abolish buying and selling as a basis for social life. At the very least, Marx is a “self-hating” Jew (today, as often as not, a sobriquet pinned by the Zionist establishment on anyone of Jewish descent who expresses critical attitudes towards the State of Israel).
Against all these grotesque distortions, our aim in this article is not only to defend Marx from those who are seeking to use him against his own principles, but also to show that Marx’s work provides the only starting point for understanding and overcoming the problem of anti-Semitism.
The historical context of Marx’s essay On the Jewish questiontc "The historical context of Marx’s essay On the Jewish question"
It is useless to present or quote from Marx’s article out of its historical context. On the Jewish question was written as part of the general struggle for political change in semi-feudal Germany. The debate about whether Jews should be granted the same civil rights as the rest of Germany’s inhabitants was one aspect of this struggle. As editor of the Rheinische Zeitung Marx had originally intended to write a response to the openly reactionary and anti-Semitic writings of one Hermes who wanted to keep the Jews in the ghetto and preserve the Christian basis of the state. But after the Left Hegelian Bruno Bauer entered into the fray with two essays ‘The Jewish Question” and “The capacity of present day Jews and Christians to become free”, Marx felt it was more important to polemicise with what he saw as the false radicalism of Bauer’s views.
We should also recall that in this phase of his life, Marx was in a political transition from radical democracy to communism. He was in exile in Paris and had come under the influence of French communist artisans (cf. “How the proletariat won Marx to communism” in International Review 69); in the latter part of 1843, in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, he identified the proletariat as the bearer of a new society In 1844 he met Engels, who helped him to see the importance of understanding the economic basis of social life; the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts written in the same year, are his first attempt to understand all these developments in their real depth. In 1845 he wrote the Theses on Feuerbach which express his definitive break with the one-sided materialism of the latter.
The polemic with Bauer on the question of civil rights and democracy, published in the Franco-German Yearbooks, was without question a moment in this transition.
At that time Bauer was a spokesman for the “left” in Germany, although the seeds of his later evolution towards the right can already be noted in his attitude to the Jewish question, where he adopts a seemingly radical position which actually ended up as an apology for doing nothing to change the status quo. According to Bauer, it was useless to call for the political emancipation of the Jews in a Christian state. It was necessary, first of all, for both Jews and Christians to give up their religious beliefs and identity in order to achieve real emancipation; in a truly democratic state, there would be no need for religious ideology. Indeed, if anything, the Jews had further to go than the Christians: in the view of the Left Hegelians, Christianity was the last religious envelope in which the struggle for human emancipation had expressed itself historically. Having rejected the universalist message of Christianity, the Jews had two steps to make while the Christians had only one.
The transition from this view to Bauer’s later overt anti-Semitism is not hard to see. Marx may well have sensed this, but his polemic begins by defending the position that the granting of “normal” civil rights for Jews, which he terms “political emancipation”, would be “a big step forward”; indeed it had already been a feature of earlier bourgeois revolutions (Cromwell had allowed the Jews to return to England and the Napoleonic code granted civil rights to Jews). It would be part of the more general struggle to do away with feudal barriers and create a modern democratic state, which was now long overdue in Germany in particular.
But Marx was already aware that the struggle for political democracy was not the final aim. On the Jewish question seems to express a significant advance over a text written shortly before, the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of the State, In this text Marx pushes his thought to the extreme of radical democracy, arguing that real democracy – universal suffrage – would mean the dissolution of the state and of civil society. By contrast, in On The Jewish Question, Marx affirms that a purely political emancipation – he even uses the term a “perfected democracy” - falls far short of real human emancipation.
It is this text in which Marx clearly recognises that civil society is bourgeois society – the society of isolated egos competing on the market. It is a society of estrangement or alienation (this was the first text in which Marx used these terms) in which the powers set in motion by man’s own hands – not only the power of money, but also the state power itself – inevitably become alien forces ruling man’s life. This problem is not solved by the achievement of political democracy and the rights of man. This is still based on the notion of the atomised citizen rather than on a real community. “None of the so-called rights of man goes beyond the egoistic man, the man withdrawn into himself, his private interest and his private choice, and separated from the community as a member of civil society. Far from viewing man here in his species-being, his species life itself – society – rather appears to be an external framework for the individual, limiting his original independence. The only bond between men is natural necessity, need and private interest, the maintenance of their property and egoistic interest”.
Further proof that alienation does not disappear as a result of political democracy was, Marx pointed out, provided by the example of North America, where religion was formally separated from the state and yet America was par excellence the country of religious observation and religious sects.
Thus: while Bauer argues that it is waste of time fighting for the political emancipation of the Jews as such, Marx defends and supports this demand: “We thus do not say with Bauer to the Jews: You cannot be politically emancipated without radically emancipating yourselves from Judaism. Rather we tell them: because you can be emancipated politically without completely and fully renouncing Judaism, political emancipation is by itself not human emancipation. If you Jews want to be politically emancipated without emancipating yourselves humanly, the incompleteness and contradiction lies not only in you but in the essence and category of political emancipation”. Concretely, for Marx this meant that he accepted the request of the local Jewish community to write a petition in favour of civil liberties for Jews. This approach towards political reforms was to be the characteristic attitude of the workers’ movement during the ascendant period of capitalism. But Marx is already looking further down the road of history - towards the future communist society –even if this is not yet named as such in On The Jewish Question. This is the conclusion to the first part of his reply to Bauer “Only when the actual individual man has taken back into himself the abstract citizen and in his everyday life, his individual work, and in his individual relationships has become a species being, only when he has recognised and organised his own powers as social powers so that social force is no longer separated from him as a political power, only then is human emancipation complete”.
Marx’s alleged anti-Semitismtc "Marx’s alleged anti-Semitism"
It is the second part of the text, replying to Bauer’s second article, which has drawn most fire onto Marx from numerous quarters, and which the new wave of Islamic anti-Semitism is misusing in support of its obscurantist world view. “What is the worldly cult of the Jew? Bargaining. What is his worldly god? Money… Money is the jealous god of Israel before whom no other god may exist. Money degrades all the gods of mankind – and converts them into commodities. Money is the general, self-sufficient value of everything. Hence it has robbed the whole world, the human world as well as nature, of its proper worth. Money is the alienated essence of man’s labour and life, and this alien essence dominates him as he worships it. The god of the Jews has been secularised and has become the god of the world. The bill of exchange is the Jew’s actual god…”. This and other passages in On the Jewish questionhave been seized upon to prove that Marx is one of the founding fathers of modern anti-Semitism, whose essay has given respectability to the racist myth of the blood-sucking Jewish parasite.
It is true that many of the formulations Marx uses in this section could not be used in the same way today. It is also true that neither Marx nor Engels were entirely free from bourgeois prejudices and that some of their pronouncements about particular nationalities reflect this. But to conclude from this that Marx and marxism itself are indelibly stained with racism is a travesty of his thought.
All these phrases must be put in their proper historical context. As Hal Draper explains in an appendix to his book Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Vol. I (Monthly Review Press, 1977), the identification between Judaism and “hucksterism”, or with capitalism, was part of the language of the time and was taken up by any number of radical thinkers and socialists, including Jewish radicals like Moses Hess who was an influence on Marx at the time (and indeed on the essay itself).
A historian of religion like Trevor Ling criticises Marx’s essay from another angle: “Marx had a mordant, journalistic style and decorated his pages with many a clever and satirical turn of phrase. The kind of writing of which examples have just been given is good vigorous pamphleteering, intended no doubt to stir the blood, but it has little to offer by way of useful sociological analysis. Such grand superficialities as ‘Judaism’ and ‘Christianity’, when used in this sort of context, have no correspondence with historical realities; they are labels attached to Marx’s own artificial, ill-perceived constructs” Ling, Karl Marx and Religion, Macmillan Press, 1980). But a few mordant phrases by Marx usually provide far sharper tools for examining a question in depth than all the learned treatises of the academics. In any case Marx is not trying here to write a history of the Jewish religion, which cannot be reduced to a mere justification for commercialism, not least because its ancient origins lie in a social order where money relations had a very subordinate role, and whose substance also reflects the existence of class divisions among the Jews themselves (for example, in the diatribes of the prophets against the corruptions of the ruling class in ancient Israel). As we have seen, having defended the need for the Jewish population to have the same “civil rights” as all other citizens, Marx merely uses the verbal analogy between Judaism and commodity relations to call for a society free of commodity relations, which is the real meaning of his concluding phrase, “The social emancipation of the Jew is the emancipation of society from Judaism”. This has nothing to do with any scheme for the physical elimination of the Jews, despite Dagobert Rune’s disgusting insinuations; it means that as long as society is dominated by commodity relations, human beings cannot control their own social powers and all will remain estranged from each other.
At the same time, Marx does provide the bases for a materialist analysis of the Jewish question - a work carried on by later Marxists, such as Kautsky and in particular Abram Leon.1 Marx points out, contrary to the idealist explanation which sought to explain the stubborn survival of the Jews as a result of their religious conviction, that the survival of their separate identity and of their religious convictions had to be explained on the basis of their real role in history: “Judaism has survived not in spite of but by means of history”. And this is indeed deeply connected to the Jews’ connection to commerce: “let us look for the secret of the Jew not in his religion but rather for the secret of the religion in the actual Jew”. And it is here that Marx uses the word play between Judaism as a religion and Judaism as a synonym for bargaining and financial power, which was based on a kernel of reality: the particular social-economic role played by the Jews within the old feudal system.
Leon, in his book The Jewish Question, a Marxist Interpretation, bases his entire study on these few limpid sentences in On The Jewish Question, and on another one in Capital which talks about “the Jews (living) in the pores of Polish society”(Vol. III, p 447) in a manner comparable to other “merchant-peoples” of history. From these few nuggets he developed the notion that the Jews, in ancient society and in feudalism, functioned as a “people-class” who were largely bound up with trade and money relations in societies which were predominantly founded on natural economy. In feudalism in particular this was codified in the religious laws, which forbade Christians to engage in usury. But Leon also shows that the Jewish connection to money relations was not always limited to usury. In both ancient and feudal society the Jews were very much a merchant people, personifying commodity relations which did not yet rule over the economy but simply linked dispersed communities where production was largely geared to use, and the bulk of the social surplus was appropriated and consumed directly by the ruling class. It was this peculiar social-economic function (which was of course a general tendency rather than an absolute law for all Jews) which provided the material basis for the survival of the Jewish “corporation” within feudal society; a contrario, where Jews engaged in other activities, such as farming, they tended to assimilate very quickly.
But this did not imply that the Jews were the first capitalists (a point which is not yet entirely clear in Marx’s text, because he has not yet fully grasped the nature of capital); on the contrary, it was the rise of capitalism that coincided with some of the worst phases of anti-Jewish persecution. Contrary to the Zionist myth that the persecution of the Jews has been a constant throughout history – and that they can never be free from it until they are gathered together in their own country2 - Leon shows that as long as they were playing a “useful” role in these pre-capitalist societies, the Jews were more usually tolerated, and often specifically protected by the monarchs who needed their financial skills and services. It was the emergence of a “native” merchant class, which began to use its profits to invest in production (for example, the English wool trade, key to the origins of an English bourgeoisie) which spelt disaster for the Jews, who now embodied an outmoded form of commodity economy and were seen as an obstacle to the development of its new forms. This tended to force more and more Jewish traders into the only form of commerce open to them – usury. But this practise brought the Jews into direct conflict with the principal debtors in society – the nobles on the one hand, and the small artisans and peasants on the other. It is significant, for example, that the worst pogroms against the Jews in western Europe took place in this period when feudalism had begun to decay and capitalism was on the rise. In England in 1189-90 the Jews of York and other English towns were slaughtered and the entire Jewish population expelled. Pogroms were often provoked by nobles who owed large amounts to the Jews and who found ready followers among the smaller producers who were also often in debt to Jewish money-lenders; both could hope to benefit from the cancellation of debt thanks to the murder or expulsion of the usurers, and the seizure of their property. The Jewish emigration from western Europe to Eastern Europe at the dawn of capitalist development was a move back to more traditionally feudal areas where the Jews could return to their own more traditional role; by contrast, those Jews who were left behind tended to become assimilated into the surrounding bourgeois society. In particular, a Jewish fraction of the capitalist class (typified by the Rothschild family) was the product of this period; parallel to this, came the development of a Jewish proletariat, although both eastern and western Jewish workers tended to be concentrated in the artisanal areas, away from heavy industry, and the majority of Jews continued to be disproportionately concentrated in the petty bourgeoisie, often in the form of petty tradesmen.
These layers - small tradesmen, artisans, proletarians - are thrown into the most abject misery by the decay of feudalism in the east, and the emergence of a capitalist infrastructure which already displays many features of its decline. In the late 19th century we now see new waves of anti-Semitic persecution in the Russian empire, provoking a new Jewish exodus to the west, which again “exports” the Jewish problem to the rest of the world, not least Germany and Austria. This period sees the development of the Zionist movement, which from right to left argues that the Jewish people could never be normalised until they had their own homeland – an argument whose futility was, for Leon, confirmed by the Holocaust itself, since none of this could have been prevented by the appearance of a small “Jewish homeland” in Palestine.3
Leon, writing in the midst of the Nazi holocaust, shows how the paroxysm of anti-Semitism reached in Nazi Europe is the expression of the decadence of capitalism. Fleeing the Czarist persecution in eastern Europe and Russia, the immigrant Jewish masses found in western Europe not a haven of peace and tranquillity, but a capitalist society that was soon to be wracked by insoluble contradictions, ravaged by world war and world economic crisis. The defeat of the proletarian revolution after the first world war opened the door not only to a second imperialist butchery, but also to a form of counter-revolution which exploited age-old anti-Semitic prejudices to the hilt, using anti-Jewish racism both practically and ideologically as a basis for completing the liquidation of the proletarian menace and for gearing society for a new war. Like the International Communist Party (ICP) in Auschwitz, the Grand Alibi, Leon focuses in particular on the use that Nazism made of the convulsion of the petty bourgeoisie, ruined by the capitalist crisis and easy meat for an ideology which promised them that they would be not only free of their Jewish competitors but also be officially permitted to lay their hands on their property (even if the Nazi state did not really allow the German petty bourgeoisie to benefit from this but appropriated the lion’s share to develop and maintain a vast war economy).
At the same time, as Leon points out, the use of anti-Semitism once again as a socialism of fools, a false criticism of capitalism, enabled the ruling class to drag in certain sectors of the working class, particularly its more marginal layers or those crushed by unemployment. Indeed, the notion of “national” socialism was one of the direct responses of the ruling class to the close link that had been established between the authentic revolutionary movement and a layer of Jewish workers and intellectuals who, as Lenin had pointed out, naturally gravitated towards international socialism as the only solution to their situation as a homeless and persecuted element of bourgeois society. International socialism was branded as a trick of the world Jewish conspiracy and proletarians were enjoined to combine their socialism with patriotism. It should also be pointed out that this ideology was mirrored in the Stalinist USSR, where the campaign of insinuation against “rootless cosmopolitans” was a cover for anti-Semitic slurs against the internationalist opposition to the ideology and practise of “socialism in one country”.
This emphasises that the persecution of the Jews also functions at an ideological level and requires a justifying ideology; in the Middle Ages, it was the Christian myth of Christ killers, well-poisoners, ritual murderers of Christian children: Shylock and his pound of flesh.4 In the decadence of capitalism, it is the myth of the Jewish world conspiracy that has conjured up both capitalism and communism to impose its rule over the Aryan peoples.
In the 1930s, Trotsky noted that the decline of capitalism was spawning a terrible regression on the ideological level:
“Fascism has opened up the depth of society for politics. Today, not only in peasant homes but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside of the twentieth century the tenth or the thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcisms. The Pope of Rome broadcasts over the radio about the miraculous transformation of water into wine. Movie stars go to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man’s genius wear amulets on their sweaters. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance and savagery! Despair has raised them to their feet, fascism has given them a banner. Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural excrement in the course of the normal development of society has now come gushing up from the throat; capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism. Such is the psychology of National Socialism” (“What is National socialism”, 1933).
These elements all come together in the Nazis’ fantasies about the Jews. Nazism made no secret of its ideological regression – it openly harked back to the pre-Christian gods. Nazism, in fact, was an occultist movement that had seized direct control of the means of government; and like other occultisms, it saw itself doing battle with another hidden and satanic power – in this case, the Jews. And these mythologies, which can certainly be examined in their own right, in all their psychological aspects, take on a logic of their own and fuel the juggernaut that led to the death camps.
However, this ideological irrationality is never divorced from the material contradictions of the capitalist system – it is not, as numerous bourgeois thinkers have tried to argue, the expression of some metaphysical principle of evil, some unfathomable mystery. In the article on Polanski’s film The Pianist in IR 113 we cited the ICP on the cold calculating “rationale” behind the Holocaust – the industrialisation of murder, where the maximum of profit was squeezed from every corpse. But there is another dimension, which the ICP does not go into: the irrationality of capitalist war itself. Thus the “final solution”, in the image of the world war which provided its background, is provoked by economic contradictions and does not renounce the hunt for profit, but at the same time becomes an added factor in the exacerbation of economic ruin. And if use of forced labour was demanded by the war economy, the whole machinery of the concentration camps also became an immense burden on the German war effort.
The solution to the Jewish problemtc
"The solution to
the Jewish problem"
160 years on, the essence of what Marx put forward as the solution to the Jewish problem remains valid: in the abolition of capitalist relations and the creation of real human community. Of course this also is the only possible solution to all surviving national problems: capitalism has proved incapable of resolving them. The current manifestation of the Jewish problem, which is specifically linked to the imperialist conflict in the Middle East, is the best proof of this.
The “solution” put forward by the “Jewish national liberation movement”, Zionism, has become the kernel of the problem. The greatest source of the current anti-Semitic revival is no longer linked directly to the particular economic function of the Jews in the advanced capitalist states, nor to a problem of Jewish immigration into these regions. Here, since world war two, the focus of racism has shifted to the waves of immigration from the former colonial regions; most recently, with the furore over “asylum seekers”, it is aimed first and foremost at the victims of economic, ecological and military devastation that decomposing capitalism is inflicting on the planet. “Modern” anti-Semitism is first and foremost connected to the conflict in the Middle East. Israel’s nakedly imperialist policies in the region and the support unwaveringly given to these policies by the USA has been a shot in the arm for all the old myths of a world Jewish conspiracy. Millions of Muslims are convinced by the urban myth that “40,000 Jews stayed away from the Twin Towers on September 11 because they had been warned in advance that the attack was coming” – that “the Jews did it”. And this notwithstanding that this claim is happily put forward by people who also defend Bin Laden and applaud the terrorist attack!5 The fact that several leading members of the clique around Bush, the “neo-conservatives” who are today the most vigorous and explicit advocates of the “new American century”, are Jews, (Wolfowitz, Perle, etc) has added grist to this mill, sometimes providing it with a left wing twist. In Britain recently there was a controversy around the fact that Tam Dalyell, an “anti-war” figure on the Labour left, spoke openly about the influence of the “Jewish lobby” on US foreign policy and even on Blair; and he was defended from charges of anti-Semitism by Paul Foot of the Socialist Workers Party who only regretted that he had talked of Jews and not Zionists. In actual practise, the distinction between the two has become increasingly blurred in the discourse of the nationalists and jihadists who lead the armed struggle against Israel. In the 60s and 70s the PLO and its leftist supporters claimed that they wanted to live in peace with the Jews in a democratic secular Palestine; but today the ideology of the intifada is overwhelmingly that of Islamic radicalism, which makes little secret of its wish to expel the Jews from the region or exterminate them outright. As for Trotskyism, it has long joined the ranks of the nationalist pogrom. We have already mentioned Abram Leon’s warning that Zionism could do nothing to save the Jews of war-torn Europe; today we can add that the Jews most threatened with physical destruction are located precisely in the promised land of Zionism. Zionism has not only built a huge prison-house for the Palestinian Arabs who live under its humiliating regime of military occupation and brutal violence; it has also imprisoned the Israeli Jews themselves in the gruesome spiral of terrorism and counter-terror which no imperialist “peace process” seems able to overcome.
Capitalism in its decadence has conjured up all the demons of hatred and destruction that have ever haunted humanity, and armed them with the most devastating weapons ever seen. It has given rise to genocide on a scale unprecedented in history, and shows no sign of abating; despite the Holocaust of the Jews, despite the cries of Never Again, we have seen not only a virulent revival of anti-Semitism but also ethnic massacres on a scale which bear comparison with the Holocaust, such as the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis in Rwanda in the space of a few weeks, or the continuous rounds of ethnic cleansing that ravaged the Balkans throughout the 90s. This revival of genocide is characteristic of decadent capitalism in its final phase – that of decomposition. These terrible events give us a glimpse of the future that the final playing out of decomposition holds in store: the self-destruction of humanity. And as with Nazism in the 30s, we see alongside these massacres the return of the most reactionary and apocalyptic ideologies all over the planet - Islamic fundamentalism, founded on racial hatred and the mysticism of suicide, is the most obvious expression of this, but not the only one: we can equally point to the Christian fundamentalism that has begun to influence the highest echelons of power in the most powerful nation of earth; to the growing grip of Jewish orthodoxy on the Israeli state, to Hindu fundamentalism in India which, like its Muslim mirror image in Pakistan, is armed with nuclear weapons; to the “fascist” revival in Europe. Neither should we leave the religion of democracy out of this list; just as it did during the period of the Holocaust, democracy today, the banner flown by US and British tanks in Afghanistan and Iraq, has shown itself to be the other side of the coin to the more overtly irrational faiths; a fig-leaf for totalitarian repression and imperialist war. All these ideologies are expressions of a social system which has reached an absolute dead-end and offers humanity nothing but destruction.
Capitalism in its decline has created a myriad of national antagonisms, which it has proved unable to resolve; it has merely used them to pursue its drive towards imperialist war. Zionism, which has only been able to establish its goals in Palestine by subordinating itself to the needs first of British, then of American imperialism, is a clear example of this rule. But contrary to the anti-Zionist ideology, it is by no means a special case. All nationalist movements have operated in exactly the same way, including Palestinian nationalism which has functioned as the agent of various imperialist powers large and small, from Nazi Germany to the USSR and Saddam’s Iraq, not forgetting some of the contemporary powers of Europe. Racism and national oppression are realities in capitalist society, but the answer to them does not lie in any schemes for national self-determination, or in the fragmentation of the oppressed into a host of “partial” movements (blacks, gays, women, Jews, Muslims, etc). All such movements have proven to be an added means for capitalism to divide the working class and prevent it from seeing its real identity. It is only by developing this identity, through its practical and theoretical struggles, that the working class can overcome all the divisions within its ranks and forge itself into a power capable of taking on the power of capital.
This does not mean that all national, religious and cultural issues will automatically disappear once the class struggle reaches a certain height. The working class will make the revolution long before it has cast off all the baggage of the ages, or rather in the very process of casting it off; and in the period of transition to communism it will have to confront a host of problems relating to religious belief and cultural or ethnic identity as it seeks to unify the whole of humanity into a global community. It is axiomatic that the victorious proletariat will never forcibly suppress particular cultural expressions any more than it will outlaw religion; the experience of the Russian revolution has demonstrated that such attempts only serve to reinforce the grip of outmoded ideologies. The mission of the proletarian revolution, as Trotsky forcefully argued, is to lay the material foundations for the synthesis of all that is best in the many different cultural traditions in man’s history – for the first truly human culture. And thus we return to the Marx of 1843: the solution to the Jewish question is real human emancipation, which will finally allow man to abandon religion by extirpating the social roots of religious alienation.