A few weeks ago I was surprised to receive an email from the Columbia University Press asking me if I was interested in receiving and reviewing a book on anti-Semitism.
The book duly arrived. It is ‘Socialism of Fools’ (Il socialismo degli imbecilli)1 by Michele Battini, a distinguished professor of modern history at the University of PIsa and a visiting professor at Columbia University in New York and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
The book is translated from Italian. This is a highly academic and learned book which reads like a doctoral thesis. The subject-matter is the history of anti-Semitism and anti-Capitalism in Europe from the Enlightenment, specifically after the French Revolution, up to the present day.
The structure of the book is more a series of essays which take us, roughly, on a chronological journey through the swamps of European anti-Semitism. It is not a history in the accepted sense, so there is no formal chronology, but there is a sense of moving forward in time as the book progresses. At the same time, there a frequent looks back and forward depending on the subject of the ‘essay’.
Battini concentrates on key figures in right and left wing socialism in Italy and France, but also covers leading figures in Germany and Europe in general.
The book presents an intellectual challenge as it deals with political and philosophical movements and individuals that few are very familiar with. The academic style of the book, along with the density of reference and the assumption of knowledge, makes it a hard, yet fascinating read.
The premise of the book is that modern anti-Semitism arose as a consequence of both anti-Enlightenment and anticapitalist movements. The anti-Enlightenment was fuelled by a reactionary, anti-Liberal Roman Catholic church which saw the Jews, newly emancipated after the French Revolution, as siding with, and promoting, the free market (which it virulently opposed) and as part of a conspiracy to break down the ancien régime and exploit the opportunities offered by new freedoms. Hence, capitalism was just a progression of usury, formerly the domain of Jewry alone. Jews were the enemy within, empowered by newly-won equality before the law to gain power and influence and, ultimately, carry out their plans for political and economic dominance.
So, these regressive forces of anti-Enlightenment began to write and propagandise their anticapitalist, anti-Jewish views in an attempt to roll back the revolution and limit Jewish power.
The rise of Marxist philosophy, as the 19th century progressed, identified Jews as purveyors of a malign free-market conspiracy and this movement, too, was infected with anti-Jewish anticapitalism. Thus both left and right had perceived grievances with Jews, who now began to flourish in Western Europe where the old tropes and blood libels eventually reemerged in, for example, the fake Protocols of the Elders of Zion, produced on the cusp of the 20th century.
Early in the book we are given a panorama, or an overview, of how modern anti-Semitism had its origins in the nascent Church which promulgated its supersessionist ideology, identifying Christianity as verus Israel, the True Israel and Jews as stubborn deniers of the Faith, clinging to their ancient beliefs, refusing to accept Christ and conversion. It is not difficult to see how the new religion of the Roman Empire, designed to be acceptable to a wide range of pagans, should see the Jews as an eternal enemy, deicides, and a corrupt and malevolent presence on which to project the dogma of damnation and heresy.
The Church saw in the Enlightenment what we would now recognise as a growing secularism and materialism which undermined its hegemony by liberating individuals from traditional feudal hierarchies. The Church was, therefore, decidedly anti-Democratic.
Some commentators even saw Jewish collusion in the rise of Protestantism which directly challenged and then denied the authority of the Pope and the Catholic Church. Thus, throughout the 19th century, the Church pushed against the Enlightenment, the free market, capitalism and the Rights of Man. At the centre of this web and the new order was the Jew, the usurer, the banker, the striver for equality, the eternal enemy, the antithesis of the Church.
These attitudes permeated French society which, despite social changes throughout the 19th century, was still a Catholic stronghold. Anti-Semitism here, Battini explains, eventually exploded in the cause célèbre of the Dreyfus affair. The Jew was naturally the most likely betrayer of the nation, even though the man himself was a secular Jew with no great affiliation to his religion. His German name, perhaps, also contributing to the reflexive accusation of treason.
Battini gives us a long and detailed history of French anti-Semitism introducing de Bonald, Toussenel, Drumont and Proudhon and the progress of anti-Semitic socialism in the 19th century. In a complex series of interwoven political and ideological threads the Jews, once again, are seen as an internal enemy promulgating anti-agrarian capitalism and financial feudalism. So when the French economy hits the buffers, the scapegoat, as always, is the Jew.
Battini demonstrates throughout his work that the reasons for hating Jews have morphed over the centuries and that the glacier of anti-Semitism has collected the accumulated moraine of reasons to hate Jews and to scapegoat them with all the ills of society.
It is instructive to note that just as the Church believed that the ultimate salvation of the Jews and the end to the ‘Jewish Question’ would come with their conversion, so, in the world of socialism there was a complementary idea of converting the Jews and ‘curing’ them of their capitalism by the ultimate triumph of universal socialism. In this scenario, Jews would be assimilated into the amorphous body of international socialism, and any Jewish traits likely to exploit fellow citizens would be nullified forever. In effect, both Church and Marxist philosophies desired the social annihilation of the Jews before National Socialism contemplated the physical annihilation.
I wondered, at this point, whether this ancient desire of the socialists to turn the Jewish propensity for exploitation through capitalism (as they saw it) has an echo in the current animus of the left against the State of Israel and, in some quarters, Jews in general. Israel is seen as the bastard progeny of the uber-capitalist United States. But worse, it is a capitalism that is working and thriving. Therefore, the Jews must be exploiting someone to achieve this free-market success – and it’s the ‘Palestinians’, victims of aggressive capitalist colonialism. Add to this a strong nationalism and desire for self-determination, mix in some traditional undercurrents of European anticapitalism and anti-Semitism and Israel represents everything the far left hates. Not surprisingly this can manifest itself in the form of modern variants of ancient tropes such as blood libels – Israelis harvesting organs, Jewish power – the Israel lobby, loyalty to a foreign state – the enemy within seeking to undermine the political system to favour Jews and their state.
Of course, there are contradictions inherent in bigotry: the right will see the prominence of Jews in socialist and communist history and the left will see the bankers and the businessmen. If the contradiction is pointed out then it is dismissed as two aspects of the same plot for world hegemony – the twenty million against the seven billion.
National Socialism was a movement which extolled the negation of the individual to submerge him in a national project. Democracy and the Rights of Man emanating from the Enlightenment stressed the primacy of the individual – the state was the servant of the people not the other way round.
Jewish experience of subjugation and persecution, denial of rights and freedoms could either lead to support for those freedoms or to see the need to negate their Jewish heritage in a socialist utopian future. Hence, Jews were well represented both in western democracies and in revolutionary Marxism. National Socialism, the enemy of both, had its prejudices against Jews reinforced and justified. Jews were always the losers whichever philosophy they attached themselves to.
Battini takes us on a journey through the development of French anticapitalist and corporatism from the second half of the 19th century up to the Vichy government which rather predictably blamed the devastating defeat at the hands of the Germans on a Jewish conspiracy. The Jews were to conquer the world by a two-pronged strategy of Bolshevism and banking. The Jews, as ever, remained an easy target for scapegoating from a nation reeling from its own inability to defend the nation from humiliation and subjugation. Not for the first time, nor the last, Jews provided a focus of hatred and contempt even as they were transported to the gas chambers in the East.
The Italian author has, of course, to address the rise of Mussolini and fascism in his own country and the path toward anti-Jewish laws and sentiment. Battini, now on home ground, presents us with the life and work of Paolo Orano, someone very few students of anti-Semitism outside Italy would have heard of, yet, according to Battini, he was a pivotal figure in the development of anticapitalist syndicalism to fascism. Orano was, indeed, an inspiration to Mussolini himself and his ideas informed the fascist movements of the early 20th century.
Orano, who seems to have had an ambiguous attitude toward the Church, nevertheless saw Italian Jews in very much the same way as the French anti-Semites: in other words an enemy within, anticlerical conspirators plotting the overthrow of the state and bending it to the financial machinations of Jewish capital. Orano was not averse to adopting the most heinous blood libels against Jews to emphasise their moral bankruptcy. Jews were not part of the Latin and neo-Roman order and never had been and Italian fascism which was strongly nationalist and racist had no place for its Jews. Despite this, it seems to me that Italians were less enthusiastic about sending Jews to their destruction than many other nationalities in Europe, but the role of the Church and the Pope during the Shoah is addressed in greater detail in other works, such as Hitler’s Pope by John Cornwell.
Battini makes many references to Hannah Arendt whose works are particularly pertinent to the author’s context. Arendt who styled herself as a political theorist wrote about totalitarianism and also the potential conflict between universal human rights and civil rights. It is interesting to note that related views have informed the recent Brexit debate in the UK where national rights and obligations were represented as at risk and undermined by the higher European authorities and international courts which deal with infra-national rights rather than the specific exigencies of national legal frameworks.
In the context of this book, Arendt’s views of the social nature of European anti-Semitism as distinct from the older forms of religious animus against Jews are referenced.
It is at this point the State of Israel enters the fray because, by its nature, it is a Jewish national movement of self-determination which from the end of the 19th century to the present day is witness to the failure of the Enlightenment to assimilate Jews into European culture.
When the declared Rights of Man failed to provide Jews with physical and economic security in Europe and the Russian Empire they were emboldened by the very same principles to create their own socialist enclave in their historic homeland. It is, perhaps, ironic, that the early Zionists were agrarianists establishing moshavim and kibbutzim which were models of socialist principles and which extolled the virtues of work and developing the land. Of course, it was Herzl’s presence at the Dreyfus trial which gave impetus and structure to Zionism. The subsequent break-up of the Ottoman empire gave the Jews the opportunity to establish a state.
Battini defines the history of anti-Jewish anticapitalism – his ‘socialism of imbeciles’ as:
‘.. a process of social.. events that involve structure deeply rooted in European culture and reveal the Jewish support for legal emancipation but also opposition to the Enlightenment enterprise of assimilation.’2
I began to have a slightly uneasy feeling that there was an element of accusation here that the Jews, insisting on their separate dual identity within the European states, cleaving to their ancient traditions, were, somehow, partly to blame for their own destruction, however morally obnoxious the perpetrators of that destruction were.
I don’t believe this is Battini’s view but I do see a subliminal atavistic fear of one’s own otherness here. Jews, generally, see age-old persecution and accusations of pushiness, deceit and deviousness as arising from bigotry, yet, to survive, these traits may well have been present to the extent that they were identified as a characteristic, one would hope disproportionately. But I feel there is an underlying sense in this book that grievances against Jews were partly justified, but the response to those grievances were not.
It should be noted that the book repeatedly refers to the Enlightenment view, especially in France, that emancipation would be an antidote to Jews’ moral decadence and that it would ‘improve’ them. Added to this, a better regulated financial system and the free-market would remove the usurious practices of the Jew. At the same time, it was acknowledged, in some quarters, that the character of the Jews was, to some extent, the result of Christian persecution and the restrictions and exclusions placed on them. The extent, if any, of moral decadence among French Jews and those of other nationalities and how they differed from the general population is a matter for further study.
Arendt pointed out that assimilation did not save the Jews. Yet, is it not a very socialist viewpoint, whether you are of the left or right, to insist that full acceptance into the socialist embrace requires renouncing other allegiances? And this leads on to the difference between acculturation and assimilation where the former allows for a dual identity but the latter denies one. The former allows for Jewishness or any sort of otherness, the latter demands the sloughing off of the old allegiances and tribalisms and subsumption into a new single identity.
Yet modern Europe, learning or believing to have learned, the lessons of the Holocaust, embraced multi-culturalism which says assimilation is not necessary, and neither is acculturation, until the lack of either becomes so antithetical to the cohesion of the social structure that the political system begins to push back against it.
The last chapter or essay concerns ‘The Shoah, Social Anti-Semitism, and its Aftermath’.
Battini reiterates his conviction that he has demonstrated that modern anti-Semitism is a social outcome of Jewish emancipation and the Enlightenment. The Shoah was not an inevitable consequence of European anti-Semitism, but a product of a kind of evolutionary progression that was unpredictable, yet organic.
Battini draws together the many threads that led to the Shoah and stresses the importance of confronting the myths, tropes and false history that lead to negationist memes infecting the culture and the principles which lay at the core of historical analysis: truth, evidence and demonstrable facts. From the denial and negation of facts comes the accusation of lies, and from those lies the Jews are seen to be exploiting a non-existent or exaggerated history in order to morally blackmail and extort reparations. Hence, the Jews’ greatest tragedy is twisted into yet another plot to gain malign influence and power.
With regard to the Israeli-Arab-Palestinian conflict Battini is right when he points out:
‘The Diaspora Jews are now depicted as the emissaries, the accomplices, the representatives of the State of Israel, which would constitute a military and intelligence outpost of the “American Empire”. In the “antiglobal” attitude, which has taken the place of the old anticapitalism, there are often ideological residues of European anti-Jewish anticapitalism, unearthed above all in Central and Eastern Europe or reemerging in the language of Islamist extremist groups.’3
This shift from anti-Semitism to anti-Zionism, with the Israelis egregiously depicted as the new Nazis to the Palestinian victims – the new Jews, has downgraded the memory of the Holocaust.
What Battini does not say is that it is this shift to anti-Zionist rhetoric, which is a fig-leaf for anti-Semitism, has been expressly promulgated to diminish the Jewish catastrophe of the Shoah in order to promote a false equivalence with perceived Palestinian victimhood. Battini’s views reveal themselves as being on the left of centre with regard to Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians. That is his prerogative and is not core to his subject-matter.
I was hoping this book would throw some light on what we perceive as the modern alliance of far left socialists and anti-western, anti-Zionist forces in the Middle East and beyond. Could the past throw light on the present? Indeed, there were certain moments of clarity in this scholarly work where linkages between the socialism of the left and fascism, and their common cause in anti-Jewish anticapitalism presented them as two sides of a political and philosophical coin.
What the book does not do is explore whether European anti-Jewish attitudes and Christian anti-Semitism infected Islamic culture or whether Muslim Jew-hatred arose independently. Certainly, Arab nationalism has produced, since the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, both left- and right-wing forms of socialism – for example Ba’athists were inspired by revolutionary socialism and against individualism; the PLO/Fatah has many connections to revolutionary, anti-imperial movements across the world, whilst Hamas’ quotes the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Freemasonry in its anti-Semitic charter.
This work deserves a close reading and re-reading as it contains a dense network of material that any student of European and Jewish history would find informative and challenging.
Battini is dispassionate as he weaves his web of historical threads and presents his thesis. This may be the way of the academic historian, to remove himself from the story and look down upon the theatre of events he describes.
Yet, there is something emotionless about his prose. Maybe Battini does not like to see history presented as a story but I would guess that non-academics, like myself, who are not historians but interested in history, per se, might prefer the style and lighter touch of popular historians such as Martin Gilbert. Nevertheless, this is an important work for those prepared to wade through its scholarly stolidity to eventually emerge with a greater knowledge and understanding of Battini’s subject-matter.
At the end of my reading, and re-reading, I remain left with the impression that any attempt to ‘explain’ anti-Semitism is always doomed to fall short of true enlightenment or epiphany simply because of the irrationality of Jew-hatred. If you succeed in explaining it logically you must prove that, to some extent at least, Jews are and have been the originators of the animus against them by virtue of their culture, beliefs and actions. This may be true, but it does not explain the uniqueness, ubiquity or persistence of anti-Semitism across two millennia.