Socialism and the Jews: A Brief History

Socialism, so recently considered over and done with, is now back. What does it mean for the Jews?

A French anti-Semitic propaganda poster. Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy.
A French anti-Semitic propaganda poster. Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy.
April 29 2019
About the author

Joshua Muravchik is the author most recently of Heaven on Earth: The Rise, Fall, and Afterlife of Socialism (Encounter).

In late January 1989, almost exactly 30 years ago, the economic historian Robert Heilbroner wrote this epitaph:

Less than 75 years after it officially began, the contest between capitalism and socialism is over: capitalism has won. . . . Capitalism organizes the material affairs of humankind more satisfactorily than socialism.

That verdict, pronounced by a leading economist who also happened to be a career-long socialist, expressed what seemed to be a global consensus on an issue that had torn the world apart for generations. For a moment, relief and joy at the end of the cold war and of the larger debate behind it soothed the pain of the many nations that had been blighted, some quite horribly, by the lethal fantasy of socialism.

Yet, ominously, socialism, so recently considered over and done with, is now back, including in the United States and the United Kingdom, with apostles at high levels of government and with polls showing its rising popularity. Among those with special reason to be wary of this return from the grave are Jews, for no other people has had so fraught and tumultuous a relationship with the socialist idea and the socialist reality. Indeed, Jews have played an unmatched role among both socialism’s genitors and socialism’s victims.

Before we return to the present, some history is in order.


Socialism germinated in the French Revolution at the same moment that the revolution “liberated” the French Jews, who would henceforth, in the famous words of Comte de Claremont-Tonnerre, be “denied everything as a nation but granted everything as individuals.” This duality—nation versus individuals—has not ceased ramifying over the centuries. A generation or two after the French Revolution, it was personified by two Jews, Moses Hess and Karl Marx, who gave socialism its modern meaning.

Of the two, Marx was by far the more influential theorist. But Hess, six years Marx’s senior, had been something of a mentor to him as, in the words of Friedrich Engels, “the first Communist in the party.” Known for his “purity of character” and “saintly” ways, Hess conceived of socialism in ethical terms. “We shall experience . . . heaven on earth,” he wrote, “when we no longer live in self-seeking and hate, but in love, in a unified human species, in the communist society.”

These words were written in the 1840s, in the voice of an atheist speaking as a presumptive Christian. But in 1862, following an interlude of political withdrawal, Hess announced that “after twenty years of estrangement I have returned to my people.” In Rome and Jerusalem, he set forth the case for Jewish statehood, thus becoming a principal forerunner to Theodor Herzl and modern Zionism.

If Hess’s relationship to his Judaism makes for an inspiring saga, that of Marx is a nightmare. His father, born Heschel Levy but calling himself Heinrich Marx, rose high in the legal profession in the German Rhineland during a brief period when longstanding restrictions on Jews were briefly rescinded under the Napoleonic conquest. After the French emperor’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, the old constraints were restored, but Levy/Marx succeeded in retaining his position by being formally converted and baptized. At the time young Karl entered elementary school, he, too, was baptized.

If this background seems sufficient to explain the younger Marx’s later cynicism toward religion, it doesn’t account for the special scorn he nurtured for Judaism. Acknowledging that Jews were in some sense victims, he laid out this sweeping solution to “the Jewish question”:

As soon as society succeeds in abolishing the empirical essence of Judaism—huckstering and its conditions—the Jew becomes impossible, because his consciousness no longer has an object. . . . The social emancipation of the Jew is the emancipation of society from Judaism. [emphasis added]

Marx, whose egocentric, belligerent personality was the opposite of Hess’s, held Hess’s ethical socialism in contempt. Instead of appealing to morality, he formulated a theory according to which nothing less than the “laws of history” destined mankind to a redemptive socialist future. This “scientific” prophecy, ironically, transformed socialism into an ersatz religion, and one that would attract millions of believers over the course of the late-19th and 20th centuries. Among those believers, Jews, large numbers of whom were in the process of abandoning traditional faith, were overrepresented.

In the realm of politics, the two largest Jewish movements in Eastern Europe were Labor Zionism and the anti-Zionist “Bund” (the General Jewish Workers Union). Both were socialist, and both drew a larger percentage of the Jewish population than did the Russian or Polish socialist parties. In pre-Soviet Russia, assimilated Jews also constituted a disproportionate share of members of both rival factions of the main socialist party, and an even larger share of their leaderships. So numerous were Jews among the Mensheviks (the party’s non-Leninist wing) that a prominent Bolshevik suggested the party would benefit from a pogrom.


The Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia in 1917 installed the world’s first socialist government, inaugurating an era in which self-proclaimed socialists of many varieties came to rule, at least temporarily, a majority of the world’s nations. Individual Jews of many countries and ideological shades would figure prominently in this history. To name just a few: in Germany, Eduard Bernstein and Rosa Luxemburg; in France, Léon Blum; in Austria, Bruno Kreisky; in the USSR, Leon Trotsky and Grigory Zinoviev; in Hungary, Bela Kun and Matyas Rakosi; in the United States, Victor Berger and Meyer London (the only two American congressmen ever elected from the Socialist party).

Whatever socialism did for individual Jews, however, for the Jews “as a nation” the results were disastrous. With the Russian revolution, they got it from both sides. The overrepresentation of Jews in visible roles among Communists fueled anti-Jewish pogroms during the Russian civil war and intensified anti-Semitism across Central and Eastern Europe in the ensuing decades. For their part, the Communists, once in power, subjected Jews to systematic discrimination in workplaces and schools and did everything they could to stamp out Jewish religious and cultural life.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, under Stalin, the Soviet regime carried out a campaign of arrests, executions, and obloquy against “cosmopolitan nationalists,” a transparent euphemism for Jews. The authorities stoked popular anti-Semitism while simultaneously closing down the few Jewish cultural organs that during World War II had been allowed to function under the banner of anti-fascism (i.e., the struggle to defend the USSR against Hitler). No one knows how far Stalin might have taken this anti-Jewish campaign had he not died in 1953.

The Communists also became lethal enemies of Israel even though, pursuing a geopolitical stratagem, Moscow had helped the Jewish state’s birth at a critical moment in 1947-48. Soon thereafter, it reverted to the anti-Zionist stand that earlier had led it to support murderous anti-Jewish riots in Palestine in the 1920s and 30s.

This hostility intensified to white-hot fury and outright anti-Semitism after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, which humiliated the USSR, the patron of the Arabs. In 1975, the malevolence reached an apex in the successful Soviet push to have the UN declare Zionism a form of racism. Attacks on “Zionists” were parroted by the USSR’s satellites, culminating in 1968 with the expulsion of 20,000 Jews from Poland, many of whom had somehow survived the Holocaust and returned to their Polish homes.

By far the greatest of all catastrophes to befall the Jews, at least since the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple, was National Socialism, a/k/a Nazism. This was a twisted, bizarre mutation of socialism, but a form of socialism nonetheless. The model of a messianic, atheistic, revolutionary party identifying the salvation of humanity with its own achievement of power, and combining electoral participation with street violence, had been designed by Lenin, consciously imitated in Italy by Mussolini, and then taken up by Hitler who copied from both of them.

National Socialism borrowed not only broad outlines but also many details. The flag and placard of the Nazi party were red—which, as Hitler explained in Mein Kampf, represented “the social idea of the party.” Members called each other “comrade.” In power, the Nazis declared May Day a national holiday; based the economy on “four-year plans”; abolished the legal distinction between white-collar and blue-collar status; proclaimed the “equality of all racial Germans”; instituted a panoply of social insurance; festooned public squares with statuary of muscled workers in the mode of Soviet “socialist realism”; and compelled young men to labor for six months on farms or in factories “to inculcate . . . a true concept of the dignity of work.”

Hitler spoke repeatedly of his affinity with socialism and even Marxism, the latter of which he rejected on the grounds of its internationalism and what he saw as its links to democracy, but especially on the grounds that Marx was a Jew.


By the time the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, bringing a climax to the long, dreary drama of socialism, the toll it had exacted of the Jews was staggering. Although it is true that socialist governments of other kinds and in other places, including Israel, have done no harm to the Jews, this scarcely redresses the overall balance.

What, then, of today, when suddenly socialism seems to have found a new lease on life and a new, benign-seeming cachet? What does this imply for the Jews?

Since the Soviet implosion, Marxism has undergone an update of sorts. In this update, race (or, sometimes, ethnicity or nationality) has joined or even superseded class as the principal vector determining socialism’s definition of injustice and sin on the one hand, liberation and redemption on the other.

True, today’s ethnicity-based neo-Marxism is not entirely new. A century ago, Mussolini, still a socialist as he had been since childhood, mused that “a future socialism might well concern itself with finding an equilibrium between nation and class.” Expanding on Marxism, fascist theoreticians explained that Italy, because it was poorer and less developed than northern European countries, was a “proletarian nation,” fighting to overthrow the “rich nations.” Hitler took the national/ethnic idea a step farther with his conception of Aryanism, and he demonstrated with a vengeance that “race” could make for an even bloodier dividing line than class.

For decades, the defeat of the Axis powers put a halt to this line of thinking. But it gathered new energy from the post-colonial struggles that followed World War II and in recent decades, in the form of “identity politics,” has gained still greater traction.

Moreover, this variant of Marxism, as well as the brand of leftism shaped by it, retains Marxism’s spirit of mortal struggle. Marx, in the words of Isaiah Berlin, had “divi[ded] mankind into good sheep and evil and dangerous goats.” In this Manichean scheme, the wellbeing of mankind depended on vanquishing, or indeed exterminating, the goats.

That idea is still present, except that today’s goats are to be identified less by “capitalist exploitation” than by “white privilege” or “colonialism.” The principal “goats” of this neo-Marxism are Westerners and white males. But the Jews are the most “goatish” of all. They are at once capitalist exploiters, having achieved affluence in their emancipation from the ghettos, and, in the form of Israel, white “colonialists,” with the Palestinians having won a place of special honor within the “progressive” and “intersectional” coalition of demographic groups and causes.


Marx’s notion of class struggle constituted a leap in political theory from earlier philosophers who had focused on how people should behave, or how states should be constructed or organized. In Marxism, war—more precisely, class war—became the ineluctable path to the most important advance that mankind could achieve. This is what made socialism, for all the imagined beauty of the socialist ideal, so horrendously destructive, and this is what still shapes the perfervid rhetoric of its contemporary avatars—for whom the Jews have become the villains of both the old and the new Marxism rolled into one.

This was exemplified in a 2012 London mural, “Freedom for Humanity,” depicting a Monopoly board resting on the backs of several naked, bent-over, dark-skinned people and six well-dressed white bankers with a pile of money sitting around the board playing the game. Several of the players bore cartoonish Jewish features. Widespread condemnation led to the mural’s being painted over, but not before the Labor politician Jeremy Corbyn had endorsed it. Meanwhile, the artist of “Freedom for Humanity” protested that his intent was not to express anti-Semitism but rather to portray “class struggle.”

In today’s new moment, these two things are increasingly difficult to tell apart. That Israel has become the favorite target of contemporary leftism has been abundantly evident in the stances struck by such latter-day socialists as Hugo Chavez, who forged an especially close bond with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; Corbyn, who has transformed the British Labor party into a stronghold of anti-Semitism; and, in the U.S., Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar.

Not all Israel-bashers are motivated by hatred of Jews, but this is cold comfort. With Israel having become the center of Jewish existence and soon to be home to the majority of world Jewry, hostility to Israel and anti-Semitism have become inextricable.

We do not know how big a hit the encore of socialism will be, or how long it will run. But once again the Jews will surely be among its prime victims—despite the melancholy fact that, as Sanders symbolizes, socialism has been in part a creature of some Jews’ contrivance. About this conundrum, the last, rueful word belongs to the chief rabbi of Moscow when asked to comment about the monstrously repressive regime in whose creation the Jewish Leon Trotsky, né Lev Davidovich Bronstein, had played a major role. “The Trotskys make the revolution,” the rabbi is said to have replied. “The Bronsteins pay the bill.”

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