Modern anti-semitism: born on the right, against the left

Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is the author of Syriza Inside the Labyrinth and a longstanding socialist activist and writer in Britain. He has closely followed Greek politics, society and culture for over twenty-five years. He was for many years a member of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain and then a leading figure in the Respect Party. He writes particularly on racism, the politics of the Middle East and the crisis of the Eurozone for a range of outlets. He is a national officer of both the Stop the War Coalition and of Unite Against Fascism. He lives in east London, but spends time in Greece and in the Middle East. Kevin was aboard the Mavi Marmara when Israeli commandos boarded it five years ago killing 10 Turkish aid workers. He led five blockade-busting aid convoys to Gaza and is on the executive committee of the International Campaign to Return to Palestine. Contact Kevin: e-mail me at: kevin.ovenden[at] On facebook here. On Twitter: @kevin_ovenden

Many friends will already know all this and more. But I’m aware that for quite a lot of people at least some of this is new. So I thought it worthwhile just jotting down a couple of things it is important to know about modern anti-semitism:

1) it was not simply a hangover from the earlier medieval, religiously based oppression of Jewish people or even a reworking of that with religion replaced by ethnicity or race, which did happen with the development of the modern capitalist world.

2) even in Russia, an economically and culturally backward, semi-feudal in in some respects, country, anti-semitism was given a distinctly modern twist with the fabrication in 1903 by the Tsarist secret police of a printed book purporting to show the secret deliberations of a Jewish conspiracy running the world.

3) two centres of the development of modern anti-semitism and its use as a way to galvanise a degree of mass political support were Austria and France at end of the 19th century.

France was the most modern and capitalist country in Europe. It was there that over a century after the French revolution had struck a huge blow to the old religious discrimination modern “political anti-semitism” was central to the reorganisation and resurgence of right wing, reactionary, militarist and monarchist forces – the Dreyfus Affair.

Vienna was also a modern city. It was there that the mayor Karl Lueger in the same period pioneered the use of anti-semitic themes to cobble together an electoral platform which tried to compete with the growing socialist movement.

It was a period of rapid change and swings from slump to boom: the Belle Epoch. The socialists could account for the dislocation of old patterns of life and the huge uncertainty of more and more becoming subject to the vagaries of the market through their analyses of capitalism. Their anti-capitalist politics was the solution. That meant Marxism at that time.

Lueger deployed anti-semitism as an alternative explanation to the anti-capitalism of the left. It was not capitalism and the exploitation by Austrian capitalists which were to blame. It was “Jewish finance capitalism”, a fictitious idea drawing on old medieval imagery of the Jewish money lender.

Lueger wanted to attract the same mass of discontented urban voters in Vienna as the socialists. He wanted to sound radical, but he wanted to reconcile the anger of workers and small businessmen with the dominance of big business and the Austro-Hungarian state.

As one historian put it he moved from a kind of anti-capitalism via anti-semitism to anti-socialism. It drew on wider confused ideas also which tried to say that it was really the new stock markets and big banks which were the problem, not “honest” capitalists, like big manufacturers. The bad capitalists then became identified by the modern anti-semites with “the Jews”.

4) modern anti-semitism (that is from the last few decades of the 19th century up to Holocaust – and since) was very much, then, crafted against the left.

This was so before Hitler and the Nazi Party. A version of anti-semitism which held “the Jews” responsible for the problems of the modern capitalist world (through conspiracies or their falsely presumed control of money) was very widely held among conservative and other right wing politicians and ruling figures in Europe and north America: from Winston Churchill to Henry Ford.

5) Nazi ideologues gave this anti-semitic ideology a particular and virulent twist. Already, various reactionary, anti-socialist forces had sought to use anti-semitism not just to compete with socialists but to undermine and attack socialism, Marxism, as a “Jewish ideology”. They gleefully pointed out that Karl Marx was a Jew.

The Tsarist autocracy never tired of pointing out that many leading Russian socialists were Jewish. The German imperial state said the same of leading Marxists in Germany, such as Rosa Luxemburg.

For the Nazis and the reactionary currents they emerged from the enemy of German was “Judeo-Bolshevism”. The Nazis’ anti-semitism was an ideological cement bonding together a vicious anti-socialism with a pseudo anti-capitalism, which was necessary – as it had been for Lueger – to compete with the radical message of the socialists and Communists.

The ideology was incoherent drivel. Hitler once tried to explain why strikes happen as being because “Moses” (one archetypal Jew) manipulated the stock market putting “honest” businesses under pressure while his “brother Aron” (a twin racist stereotype) popped up as a Marxist agitator and manipulated the workers into going on strike against the “honest” German boss.

Jews were absurdly both the agents of global capitalism and of the global socialist movement fighting against it. Added to this was a concentration of the widespread biological racism into a particularly virulent strain – “the Jews” were infecting the health body politic with their ideology, and also literally like a virus were biologically infecting the healthy Aryan race.

The particularly vicious anti-semitism had a central place in the Nazi perverted worldview. It was about more than using anti-Jewish racism to win votes and scapegoat. That was secondary.

What was really central was that it provided a warped logic to otherwise totally incoherent Nazi ideology. The anti-semitic image of “the Jew” had a special place in the Nazi imagination. That was ultimately why there was a particular effort directed at exterminating the Jews within the general level of Nazi atrocities under the cover of the Second World War.

6) there is much more to say about all this. And of course understanding the origins of reactionary ideas doesn’t mean we don’t have to look at how they are used today or to confront them wherever they come up.

But I thought it would be helpful for friends for whom all of this is pretty new to hear these points: modern anti-semitism, of the kind which the Nazis expressed in a particularly virulent form, was crafted as an ideology against the influence of the left and as an alternative to the universal, internationalist and anti-capitalist politics of the left.

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