Structural antisemitism

From “Reflections on Left antisemitism”

  1. Opportunistic accusations
  2. Structural antisemitism
  3. Exculpatory anti-Zionism
  4. Zionism, nationalism, and socialism

Whether or not the aforementioned remarks were unintentional is of no consequence here. I have no interest in singling out individuals as virulent antisemites, even if a strong case could be made in certain instances. Here larger forces are at work, which operate according to a dynamic the Marxian theorist Moishe Postone has called “structural antisemitism.” Postone provided a fairly succinct definition in an interview with Martin Thomas for the German publication Krisis, distinguishing it from other forms of racism:

It’s true that the Israeli government uses the charge of antisemitism to shield it from criticisms. But that doesn’t mean that antisemitism itself isn’t a serious problem. The way in which antisemitism is distinguished, and should be distinguished, from racism, has to do with the sort of imaginary of power, attributed to the Jews, Zionism, and Israel, which is at the heart of antisemitism. The Jews are seen as constituting an immensely powerful, abstract, intangible global form of power that dominates the world. There is nothing similar to this idea at the heart of other forms of racism. Racism rarely, to the best of my knowledge, constitutes a whole system that seeks to explain the world; whereas antisemitism is a primitive critique of the world of capitalist modernity. The reason I regard it as being particularly dangerous for the Left is precisely because antisemitism has a pseudo-emancipatory dimension that other forms of racism rarely have.

He goes on to explain that “[antisemitism] represents a fetishized form of anticapitalism. That is, the mysterious power of capital — which is intangible, global, and which churns up nations and areas and people’s lives — is attributed to the Jews. The abstract domination of capitalism is personified as the Jews. Antisemitism is thus a revolt against global capital, misrecognized as the Jews.” Marx of course was careful, for all his fulminations against the bourgeoisie, to assign precedence to the impersonal logic of capital over and above its personification in individual capitalists. Capitalists are merely the “character masks” of capital, and are as much subject to its control as the workers they employ (despite enjoying a greater share of the wealth generated by it).

Building on Postone’s argument, as well as the arguments of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Werner Bonefeld writes: “Modern antisemitism is ‘the rumor about the Jews’ as the incarnation of hated forms of capitalism, which implies that antisemitism expresses resistance to capitalism.” This thesis is not without its problems, of course. For all its faults, however, especially in turning an historical accident of capitalism’s development into a logical necessity, the structural antisemitism argument is generally sound. Just as I would say there structural anti-black racism exists because of the role played by transatlantic slave trade in the colonization of the New World, not to mention its lingering legacy in postbellum labor relations. In other words, there is a logical role each can conveniently play (for historic reasons) in the systemic structure of capitalism.

Leftists often have this delusion where they think anyone who doesn’t simply parrot cable news anchors or political pundits is just an inch away from a comprehensive Systemkritik. Seeing the Illuminati behind everything is supposedly the first step on some inevitable road to a critique of the capitalist totality. Hence the isomorphy between the average “critical” narrative (including most leftist ones) and the antisemitic narrative. Both boil down to a critique of who makes up the management of a social structure — or at best, a critique of the mode of management — rather than a critique of the fundamental social relations themselves. It’s easier to stick with the idea that you just have to weed out “a few bad apples” than it is to tear apart the ideological fabric of everything that surrounds you.

A glance at the history of European socialism reveals the extent to which this is true, even at a very basic level. Many of the early socialists held deeply antsemitic beliefs. This was in no way unrelated to their anticapitalism. For Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Jews were the embodiment of capitalism par excellence. “Jews poison everything by sticking their noses into everything without ever mixing with any other people,” he recorded in his notebook in 1846. “The Jew is the enemy of humankind, and must be sent back to Asia or be exterminated. By steel or by fire or by expulsion the Jew must disappear.” Likewise, Mikhail Bakunin reserved some choice words for the Jews in an 1871 letter to Bolognese representatives of the Workingmen’s International. Bakunin even speculated the Jews might be behind both capitalism and Marxian communism, something which would later become an antisemitic article of faith.

Well now this whole Jewish world which constitutes a single exploiting sect, a sort of bloodsucker people, a collective parasite, voracious, organized in itself, not only across the frontiers of states but even across all shades of political opinion. This world is presently, at least in great part, at the disposal of Marx on the one hand and of the Rothschilds on the other. I know that the Rothschilds, reactionaries as they are and should be, highly appreciate the merits of the communist Marx; and that in his turn the communist Marx feels irresistibly drawn, by instinctive attraction and respectful admiration, to the financial genius of Rothschild. Jewish solidarity, that powerful solidarity that has maintained itself through all history, united them.

Pierre Leroux, a rogue Saint-Simonian, authored an article in 1846 entitled “Jews, the Kings of the Epoch,” in which he espoused his antisemitic creed. “It is quite evident,” he wrote, “that when we speak of Jews we mean the Jewish spirit, the spirit of profit, of lucre, gain, the spirit of commerce, speculation — in a word, the banker spirit.” Leroux then dredged up the perennial charge of deicide, holding all Jews past and present collectively responsible for the murder of Christ. “Whence comes this frenzied attachment to earthly goods in the Jew, an attachment which has made his name a synonym for greed and avarice?” he asked. “Shall we say with the theologians that by a terrible predestination, the Jew has deserved to fail to recognize its Savior and Messiah, the Savior of all men, since it failed indeed to recognize Him and stupidly put Him to death? No doubt.” Eugen Dühring, the titular object of Engels’ ire in Anti-Dühring, was another famous socialist who was an avowed antisemite.

It is therefore unsurprising that the eminent Marxist August Bebel would quip, in the 1880s, that “antisemitism is the socialism of fools” [der Antisemitismus ist der Sozialismus der dummen Kerle].

Yesterday I published a translation of Il Lato Cattivo’s “Letter on Antisemitism,” from 2014, which covers much of this same ground. Along with this text, I included a few excerpts by the Duponts taken from the Insipidities blog. One line in particular captures the dynamic discussed here. “Within the arrangement of leftist awareness there exists a preconscious responsiveness to the subjective agency of Jews, which corresponds to the tendency to anthropomorphize institutional power as the outcome of the conspiracy of the powerful,” one states. “That is to say, even though individuals on the Left are personally opposed to antisemitism, their argumentation — the procedures, propositions, inferences, deductions — is structured to find archetypal personifications at the heart of what it opposes. One of these figures, perhaps the most discernible and significant, is the Jew.” Precisely this propensity to anthropomorphize a misanthropic system of domination leads to popular outcry against the “banksters,” those in charge of the Zionist Occupied Government (ZOG) or New World Order (NWO).

Jacob Bard-Rosenberg, a thoughtful reader of Benjamin, Adorno, and Sohn-Rethel, posted a brief reflection a couple months back on the phenomenon of left antisemitism: “A Note on Left-Wing Antisemitism from an Anti-Zionist Jew.” He reposted it couple days ago, in light of all that’s been going on:

It would really help if people wouldn’t keep insisting that [left antisemitism] doesn’t exist. It does. And unfortunately you do find it more often in those parts of the left engaged in pro-Palestinian activism. It may be true that Zionists will always accuse anti-Zionists of antisemitism, regardless of whether it is true or not. But it is in the interests of the anti-Zionist struggle not only to be free of antisemitism, but also to recognize that at times there is antisemitism in pro-Palestinian movements. Only then can we try to do something about it instead of just denying it. More broadly part of the problem is that a section of the left seems to think that all opposition to the current state of things, or to capitalism, is equally radical: this thought puts critical theories of society and conspiracy theories of society on equal footing. It is up to the left to recognize that the most racist Jewish conspiracy theories were also nominally anti-capitalist (even if they tended towards a critique of circulation rather than of capitalist production, or suggested that profit was founded on a swindle as opposed to on brutal exploitation, or if they theorized an enlarged image of the state to set themselves up against instead of the real enormity of private property, or if they saw the problem as a malignancy of who runs the world as opposed to the malignancy of how it is run.) For this reason we cannot gather all “anticapitalists” under our banner, but have to reject those whose theories tend to end in racism and conspiracy theory; we need to criticize ourselves to root out these tendencies in our own thinking.

On top of this, here are a couple of things that I really don’t want to hear again: “I can’t be anti-Semitic because Arabs are Semites too!” — the word “antisemitic” refers as little to the oppression of non-Jewish Arabs as the word “television” refers to looking into the distance. This argument is akin to saying “I didn’t act in a racist way because I don’t believe in a theory of races.” This is not just to say that those interested in etymology ought also to care about philology (they would quickly discover that since the first uses of the term antisemitism, a translation of the German Antisemitismus, from the 1870s or there about, has always referred to an anti-Jewish sentiment); but also that anti-racism is an important weapon in the opposition of Zionism, and this isn’t something to be frivolous about. And nor, when it is pointed out to you that you are being racist, is it an invitation for you to try to use your linguistic cunning to get out of it. I also don’t really want to see more images of octopuses and vampire squids, I don’t want to see cartoons of guys with long noses and clawed hands. And I think people ought to be more careful about what they imply about the relationships between Zionism, financial capital, and the media. In particular I think the word “lobby” needs to be used rather more judiciously than it is at present. This is not to say that there isn’t an enormous Zionist effort to present the case for Israel strongly in the Western media, nor is it to deny that this presentation rests on the eclipse not only of real present Palestinian suffering but also historic ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. But it is to say that given the history of antisemitism and the specificity of forms it has taken, care needs to be taken about how you say these things.

There is one minor quibble I have with Jacob’s post. Or rather, the comment he appended to the post: “[I]f you’re not a Jewish person and you want to comment on what’s going on in the UK at the moment, how about speaking to some of us instead of treating our oppression as a cause célèbre with which to score political points.” No one should feel obliged to seek out “the Jewish perspective” before forming an opinion on recent events. As a rule, I reject the kind of standpoint theory that says one has to defer to individuals belonging to a particular group on a given issue. Politics must not devolve into some insipid game of “Ask a Jew!”, or any other particular group.

2 thoughts on “Structural antisemitism

  1. Pingback: Anatomy of a controversy | The Charnel-House

  2. “It is therefore unsurprising that the eminent Marxist August Bebel would quip, in the 1880s, that “antisemitism is the socialism of fools” [der Antisemitismus ist der Sozialismus der dummen

    Bebel himself attributed the quote to Ferdinand Kronawetter. While Bebel was opposed to antisemitism, he thought the misguided fools (antisemites) would become socialists eventually. So he’s actually an early proponent of the problem in the left you describe so accurately.

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