Abram Leon and the Roots of Anti-Semitism in Europe

Abram Leon and the Roots of Anti-Semitism in Europe

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I am currently reading Abram Leon’s book ‘The Jewish Question – A Marxist Interpretation’. Leon was a resistant fighter against the Nazis before he was arrested and sent to Auschwitz. He died there in September 1944, age 26. His book was published in French in 1946 and then in English in 1950. Here is a link to the text


Fascism is the attempt of capital to re-articulate its rule in a different, extra-parliamentary form under conditions of deep economic crisis and intense class struggle.

Millions of proletarians actually supported Hitler, Mussolini and Franco but their support ran contrary to their class interests. Fascism always appeals to the sections of the petit bourgeoisie ruined in such crises and cultivates this class as its social base. Kuche, Kuchen, Kirche. Fascist dictatorship does not, and cannot, rest on the historic interests of the proletariat. It must be rooted in the interests of capital but its social base is this petit bourgeoisie. In Germany, the indebted landowning descendants of the Junkers also formed an indispensable element in the rise of Fascism. Hitler’s SS was saturated with assorted princelings, barons and small businessmen.

The main objective of all forms of fascism is to destroy the organised power of the class movement of the proletariat. In Germany, the KPD, Social-Democrats, trade unionists, etc. It is no accident of history that the communists were the first into the concentration camps. A major reason why German fascism targetted the Jews was not because some were businessmen or “running the economy”, etc, but because many people of Jewish background were prominent in the revolutionary movement and in the intelligentsia. Behind all the Nazi ideology lurked real class interests at work. Hitler equated “Bolshevism” with a “Jewish plot”.

The German workers’ movement was an incredible and powerful organisation. A society within a society. The new society germinating within the womb of the old. The most advanced history has witnessed so far. It was not simply a political movement but a complex mass socio-economic organisation numbering in millions. It had its own insurance organisations, hospitals, schools, kindergartens, leisure facilities, etc. Every Friday evening – when workers were paid their wages – thousands of workers would actually queue up around the HQs of the KPD and SPD to pay in their subscriptions. There were so many in the queues that they had to be arranged concentrically around the party buildings. Millions ready for revolution. At times armed.

From 1919 to 1933 the German workers rose in revolt five times in struggle to put an end to the rule of capital. Defeated five times. Capital had to smash all this to smithereens. It used Hitler’s NSDAP to do this. It could not have done this without a series of international defeats for the proletariat aided, of course, by the Social-Democrat traitors and Stalinism which put the caste interests of the Soviet bureaucracy and “socialism in one country” above all else. Even at the time of Krystallnacht, millions opposed Hitler’s maneouvres. The German economy was still in deep crisis. It only started to pick up in the wake of Roosevelt’s reflationary “New Deal”, its global effects and the beginnings of re-armament. In my opinion, without this, Hitler’s regime could not have survived. It was the impetus which developments in world economy gave to German capitalism which enabled Hitler to consolidate his rule and pursue his genocidal program.

What are the historic roots of anti-semitism in Europe? This is a very complex question and Leon analyses this in much greater depth in his text.

Leon writes that the Jews entered Europe during Antiquity as a trading people and that the diaspora had more or less already taken place before the destruction of Jerusalem under the Flavian emperors in the 1st century CE. His book elaborates a comprehensive history of the Jews from pre-Roman times up to the twentieth century. According to Leon, at least 75% of Jews lived outside of Palestine (dispersed around the Roman and Persian empires) by the time of the destruction of the temple in 70 AD by the legions of the emperor Titus.

During the later period of the Middle Ages, anti-semitism grew in England largely as a result of competition with the Jews from native merchants as was the case in some other European countries. [The first recorded evidence of the Jews in England is in the 11th century when they accompanied William the Norman conqueror to set up a system of credit and develop trade. The Jews are not recorded in England before the Norman conquest. Which is not to say that Jews were not living in Anglo-Saxon England. An Anglo-Saxon law passed under Edward the Confessor mentions the Jews and their property as under the control of the Crown.] In the feudal order in England, the Jews could not hold land in fief and were also generally excluded from the feudally-mediated Guild system of petty handicraft. This meant that they continued to live by their traditional occupations of trade or money lending. However, this was not universally the case. Some guilds – such as the Goldsmiths and Silversmiths – were run by Jews. In the later Middle Ages, land given as security by the nobility for loans was surrendered to Jews when the loans could not be repaid, Land then was sold on speculatively. The land was acquired by the Jewish usurer on failure to meet debts simply to cover his principal and interest so it entered his hands as a commodity to be sold and not as an asset to be worked

When the Jews arrived in England from Europe in the 11th century they had to continue with their commercial activities which, accordingly, did not emerge reactively to the new conditions confronting the Jews in England. Commodity and money capital are both older than feudalism itself. They were found, in various forms, in the ancient world. The Jews continued with the occupations which enabled them to survive in Europe from where they had migrated with William. But these activities certainly became consolidated and developed amongst the Jews in the “pores” of feudal society in England.

Trade and usury, as they developed, began to serve to undermine the feudal order itself, acting as a dissolving influence on it. The emergence of anti-semitism in Europe in this period is associated with two sources [1] the conflict between the growth of commodity and money capital on the one hand and the increasingly precarious position of the old feudal nobility and declining Guilds and [2] the growth of a native merchant class whose direct competitors were the Jews themselves. Leon also puts forward the thesis that the non-Jewish nascent bourgeoisie began to challenge the commercial and trading monopolies held by Jews with the growth of trade in the later feudal period. This was the source of the anti-semitism in the forerunners of the bourgeoisie under feudalism. It was deployed as an ideological weapon to dispossess them of their commercial monopolies and expel them.

The Jews in medieval England lived under the patronage of the Crown which could be withdrawn at any time. As with non-Jews trading in money and commodities, their activities as commodity and money dealers undoubtedly served to facilitate the dissolution of feudal relations. It was the growth of capital in circulation (commodity and money capital) which was the fundamental determinant/solvent in serving to dissolve feudal relations. Capital only starts to comprehensively enter the sphere of production from the beginning of the 16th century. First in agriculture and then later in manufacture. The emergence and development of these relations necessarily posited a struggle between the merchant class and the whole feudal order.

We only have to study the history of the Jews in medieval England to see that the anti-semitism was related to their economic status. It wasn’t ideological in origin or because of the ascribed role the Jews supposedly played in the New Testament, etc The Jews were “personified” as a threat to established feudal relations and ties – and to the development of non-Jewish commodity and money capital – which is not to assert that English merchants were not also identified as a threat. All classes in later medieval society found their reasons to persecute the Jews who activities tended to shift away from trade towards usury as they were expelled from the former by the developing native merchant class.

The persecution of the Jews in York in 1190 (resulting in a mass suicide) and the expulsion of the total Jewish population (about 3000) from England in 1290 by Edward Longshanks (Edward I, “Hammer of the Scots” ) are the most noted events in the history of anti-semitism in England. Edward appropriated all the loans of the expelled Jews so that all re-payments with interest went directly into the treasury of the Crown.

The Jews were only formally re-admitted under Cromwell in the 1650s. He saw them as encouraging of wealth, thrifty and conducive to the development of trade and capitalism. Their re-admittance complimented his Puritan ethic which serviced and facilitated the accumulation of capital. Even today in England, in some synagogues, prayers are still said for Cromwell.

The Jews lived by means of money or commodity capital and therefore they were seen as the personifications of the threat to the interests of this top layer of the feudal system in its later stages of development. This is just one of the historical roots of anti-semitism in Europe. The other major root being the rise of the bourgeoisie as a distinct “estate” and its competition with Jewry in trade and money-lending. The fact that the account of events in the New Testament were conveniently used as an ideological justification for expulsion and persecution does not mean that this persecution was rooted in that text.

The text was used as an ideological cudgel to expel and massacre the Jews in the interests of bankrupt nobles and the emerging bourgeoisie who coveted the commercial monopolies of the Jews.

As well as the conflicts over commercial monopolies, we can see how the historic roots of anti-semitism found particular expression in the nobility and petit bourgeoisie because commodity and money capital undermined the Guild system and the ’divinely-ordained’ feudal order with the nobility seated at its apex. The Crown and nobility often had to go to the Jewish money-lender in medieval England in order to finance wars, profligacy, luxury, etc. And the conflicts of this relationship were exacerbated when loans, payments and re-payments, etc, could not be made, etc. Edward tried to solve the whole problem by a mass expropriation and expulsion.

Abram Leon’s fine study of the history of the Jews since antiquity is an absolute ‘must’ for anyone who wishes to develop a firm grasp of the ‘Jewish Question’, especially in relation to Zionism and the Israeli state.

Shaun May


May 2014



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