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.
In Russia, the socialist movement emerged when Jewish workers established the Bund–the General Jewish Workers’ Union of Lithuania, Poland, and Russia–in 1897. At the turn of the century, there were numerous Jews among the leadership and cadres of all major revolutionary movements. Many of them, however, were assimilated individuals from multinational regions, and they honestly believed that once their utopia materialized, all ethnic differences would disappear.
There is no doubt that the disproportionately large presence of Jews in revolutionary movements served to aggravate anti‑Jewish feelings among those sectors of European society who, as adherents of the old order, had every reason to fear a “brave new world.” It was easy to pin these apprehensions on persons belonging to a people that had always been regarded as foreign among the European family of nations. The role played by Jews in the communist enterprise was to result in terrible consequences on one hand, it gave credence to the anti-Semitic slogan of “Judeo-Bolshevism.” On the other hand, within the communist world itself, thousands of Jews, regardless of whether they had been communist activists themselves or simply supporters of communism as the enemy of fascism, were sacrificed to the Leninist‑Stalinist Moloch.
Social utopianism also colored various Jewish nationalist movements. “If you will it, it is no fairy‑tale” was Theodor Herzl’s motto for Altneuland, the most famous of early Zionist literary utopias. Although considered “bourgeois” by Moses Hess and other committed socialists [Hess was not actually a contemporary of Herzl, so the author, Barnavi, bases this assertion on his interpretation of Hess’ writing], there is no doubt that Herzl, and some of his predecessors in the Zionist utopian genre, were influenced by socialist ideologies prevalent in Europe during the second half of the nineteenth century: they shared the dream of creating in the Land of Israel a society based on social justice, enlightenment, and tolerance. The kibbutz, a concrete and lasting expression of the agrarian social utopia, was the creation of Zionist movements originating in Eastern Europe, such as Ha‑Po’el Ha‑Tsa’ir (“Young Worker”) and Ha‑Shomer Ha‑Tsa’ir (“Young Guard”). The utopian bent inherent in Zionism was manifested not only in the socialist movements which were predominant in the Palestinian yishuv, but also in the philosophies of major thinkers such as Martin Buber, spiritual leader of his generation and a partisan of a Jewish‑Arab dialogue. The present collapse of communism does not necessarily signify the death of social utopia. However, only the future will tell what form it will take and whether Jews will continue to play a prominent role in bringing it about.