With modernization came industrialization, a system of production that created whole new kinds of work and attitudes about it. Socialism, the theory of social organization in which the means of production and distribution of goods are owned and controlled collectively, emerged in part as a response to this new working world. The following article explores the prominence of Jews in socialist movements. It is reprinted with permission from
A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People
edited by Eli Barnavi and published by Schocken Books.
The remarkable prominence of Jews in all socialist movements, whether revolutionary or reformist, universalist or nationalist, is a phenomenon which requires explanation. Every generation during the past two centuries has produced a small but select group of Jewish youths who fought for the establishment of one form of utopia or another. Some scholars regard this utopian impulse as a modern secular version of the messianic tradition and of the promise for an ideal future implied in biblical prophecy. But it seems more reasonable to seek an explanation in more recent times.
With the beginning of emancipation in the wake of the French Revolution, many Jews became inpatient with the slow advance of liberalism.
The universalist message, the vision of a just society, obviously appealed to members of a persecuted minority anxious to liberate themselves from the status of pariah and to join the “Brotherhood of Man.” Rising expectations, frustrated by early manifestations of modern anti-semitism, combined with demographic growth and expanding circles of secularly‑educated youth intoxicated with the heady wine of new ideals, probably account for the fact that utopian aspirations became an intellectual hallmark of Jewish society.
Saint‑Simon, founder of the earliest utopian socialist movement, considered the emancipation of the Jews an essential prerequisite for the liberation of humanity. It is therefore not surprising that among his supporters were many Jewish intellectuals and financiers. But it was in Germany that Jews became the pioneers of the first real socialist workers movement. It was Moses Hess who converted Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to the concept of historical materialism upon which communism was based (although Hess himself later became a precursor of socialist Zionism); and in 1863 another Jewish intellectual, Ferdinand Lassalle, founded the first actual workers’ party in Germany.
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