Capitalism and the Jews

"Discussions of Jews and capitalism touch upon neuralgic subjects," writes Jerry Muller. And he then presses hard. Jews have had a special relationship with capitalism, he argues, because they have been especially good at it. Whenever they have been allowed to compete on equal terms, they have done disproportionately well.

This economic success has been a source of both pride and embarrassment to them. It has led some anti-Semites to condemn capitalism, drawing on pre-capitalist denunciations of usury. It has led others to condemn what they stupidly conceive as "Jewish capitalism". For liberals, the reality of differential group achievement under conditions of legal equality is something of a scandal. These are the essential arguments of Muller's book, and he draws on the work of crackpots and scholars alike to make them.

A preoccupation with Jewish capitalist vice, it would now be accepted, is likely to betray an anti-Semitic bent. And certainly, it would be taken for granted that only an anti-Semite would relate the vice to the Jewishness. In England, such a preoccupation was rarely in evidence. It flamed into being, however, during the second Boer war, which lasted from 1899 until 1902.

Opposition to the war, cast in anti-Semitic terms, came from elements on the liberal left and from the leadership of the Social Democratic Federation, the Marxist party. The conflict, they said without embarrassment, was incited by wealthy international Jews and waged for their benefit. British Tommies were dying to protect the commercial interests of Jewish plutocrats. The British public was brainwashed into supporting the war by the Jewish-owned yellow press. Great courage was needed, it was said, to state these truths publicly; Jewish power was not lightly to be challenged.

Jews, many of them comrades of these leftist anti-Semites, remonstrated. What was this nonsense about the causes of the war? Cecil Rhodes was not a Jew; the imperial government was not composed of Jews. The "Randlords", the owners of the great diamond and gold mines, were far from being exclusively Jews, even in origin. Indeed, not even a majority of them were Jewish. Likewise, the news­paper proprietors. They argued that the causes of the war had more to do with British imperial interests than with commercial motives. They said that, in any event, the Jews did not have the power to influence the making of war.

These Jews also wondered about the anti-Semites' uncritical admiration for the Boers. They were struck by some of the language
used in the attacks on "Jew-capitalists", so resonant with attacks on other Jews, across several centuries: "Verily the Jew has led the Gentile captive." And what was this nonsense about Jewish capitalists? Yes, there were Jewish and Christian capitalists; they pursued their commercial interests. But why focus on the Jews, why mark them out for special opprobrium? There were far worse capitalists.

The activists responded with countercharges. These, in effect, were: you are smearing us, you want to stop us talking about the prominence of Jews and finance, and about the special relation between Judaism and capitalism. "Is it permissible to denounce all capitalists and money-grabbers in unmeasured terms, except when they are Jews, and is it then alone that we must speak 'with bated breath and whispering humbleness'?" asked an editorial in the Marxist newspaper Justice. Jewish capitalists were simply not like other capitalists. Of course, the
paper explained, socialists "have no feelings against Jews as Jews, but as nefarious capitalists and poisoners of the wells of public information, we denounce them". We deplore anti-Semitism; indeed, they added, we fear that the rich Jews are stirring it up, by their unscrupulous behaviour. The radical MP John Burns told a Stop the War rally in 1900 that the "South African Jew has no bowels of compassion". His speech was later printed under the title "The Trail of the Financial Serpent" with the subheadings "England as the janissary of the Jews" and "Everywhere the financial Jew".

Muller is keen to rescue from apologists, ideologues and anti-Semites the exploration of what he describes as the Jews' "special relationship" with capitalism. He shows that, for the better part of the 19th century, the attack on finance took the form of an attack on the Jews, but he also praises the German sociologist Max Weber and the economist Friedrich von Hayek for resisting this identification of Jews with capitalism.

This book is both scholarly and speculative, analysing the sociology and the anti-Semitic pseudo-sociology of the Jews' participation in capitalism. It will not be the last word on the subject, but it is a genuine contribution to it.

This article first appeared in the 29 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Hold on tight!