Norm Geras, writing in the Jewish Chronicle yesterday:

It is not difficult to understand the long affinity that has existed between Jews and the left. Common traditions of opposition to injustice, the commitment within liberal and socialist thought to ideals of some sort of equality, opposition to racist and other similar types of prejudice – these things have long served to attract Jewish people to organisations and movements of the left, and they continue to do so.

This is awkward territory. The same supposed affinity for socialism is part of anti-Semitic discourse among some parts of the far right. It’s also, I think, awkward to try to suggest virtues are characteristic of racial or ethnic groups, since the general attribution of characteristics to ethnic groups is a hallmark of racial prejudice.

What’s more, injustice and equality mean different things to liberals and socialists, so you can’t group them together. Liberalism is essentially individualism, whereas socialism is essentially a collectivist philosophy. I suspect Norm is referring principally to the socialist interpretation of these words.

But let’s go with it anyway. Let’s say that Jews have historically been drawn to the socialist left. Why might that be?

And let’s exclude the notion that Jews are any more drawn to justice and equality than other people, instead saying they are more drawn than many groups towards collectivism. Why?

Jews have a shared collective experience. In many ways it’s a very bad collective experience. It’s one of being singled out for hatred, in many parts of the world, often for religious reasons by Christians and Moslems, for many centuries.

But that has thrown Jews back onto each other. Jewish communities are very close and mutually supportive. They are also, in my experience, very welcoming to outsiders who don’t exhibit signs of Jew-hatred. Jewish culture has had to be collectivist, whatever people might have wanted under other circumstances, and socialism is just a broader political expression of that reality.

This tallies with the notion that we seek rationalisations for our predispositions in politics. That is, political philosophy doesn’t guide people to conclusions, rather it justifies the ones they have already reached.

This would also explain the tendency some people have to be socialist in youth, growing less so as they get older. Normally this is seen in terms of youthful idealism and a cynicism and self-interest as one gets older and acquires more. Instead you could see youthful socialism simply as a quest for a political system that mirrors the communism of the family home and the authoritarianism of school – the environments young adults are most used to.

And it would explain why people become less socialist as they gradually get used to the more fragmented, individualistic adult world. It is a process of getting accustomed, not a calm analytical investigation, that leads people to change because this is how predisposition changes. As that develops, so the rationalisations we select for the politics we already have change too.

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12 thoughts on “Jews, young people and socialism

  1. Welcome back, Peter. About bloody time.

    “This would also explain the tendency some people have to be socialist in youth, growing less so as they get older. Normally this is seen in terms of youthful idealism and a cynicism and self-interest as one gets older and acquires more. Instead you could see youthful socialism simply as a quest for a political system that mirrors the communism of the family home and the authoritarianism of school – the environments young adults are most used to.”

    A month or so ago, a Guardian reader wrote, “It’s commonplace for those of a leftist bent to move to the right as they get older (i.e. as they acquire income, assets and status).” As one of my commenters pointed out, she didn’t ‘acquire’ income and assets; she earned them over many years. And in the process presumably learned the skills, insights and sacrifices that help make a person successful. Despite the claims of some leftists that the abandonment of socialism is a sign of selfishness, cynicism and adult greed, I’d suggest the opposite is much more common. In my experience, it’s students and twenty-something leftists who presume an entitlement to take even more of what others have earned in order to reward themselves, or to flatter their own self-image as compassionate and benign. And swapping that kind of arrogance for cynicism isn’t so terrible a trade.

    And if these young people aren’t selfish, indeed vindictive, I’m not at all sure who is.

  2. Thanks, David.

    I quite agree. The selfishness and self-righteousness follow from trying to apply teenage behaviour within a family to the greater world. Laurie Penny springs to mind.

  3. It could also be that because Jews have been persecuted, socialism gives them a mechanism to mobilise the power of the state against their persecutors.

  4. Jonathan, yes I think that’s true. I assume it’s also why Jews might be particularly aware of the ugliness of racism.

  5. the general attribution of characteristics to ethnic groups is a hallmark of racial prejudice.

    And the refusal to recognize distinct characteristics of ethnic groups is a hallmark of political correctness. The Irish do drink a lot. Germans tend to be meticulous and organized. Gujaratis are often entrepreneurial (and sharp bargainers – they’re proud of it). American blacks are about ten times as likely as other Americans to commit violent crimes. (But police who act on this perception are savaged for “racial profiling”, even as they reduce crime against blacks by 50% or more.)

  6. There are always sober Irish and disorganised Germans. The problem comes when attributing what’s held to be a general characteristic to individuals. This is why I call it ‘awkward’ rather than forbidden territory. Note I have gone with the generalisation in the post above.

  7. 1. The Jews attracted to socialism have largely thrown over/given up on Judaism. Historically – and building on Jonathan’s comment above – Jews turned to socialism as a way to save themselves from persecution. It was basically an assimilationist strategy that didn’t see Judaism as worth preserving.

    Which makes discussion of the affinity between Judaism and leftist thought less relevant that you’d think.

    2. Certainly monotheism implies a “collective” – the brotherhood of mankind. But the the “social responsibility” described in the Torah in no way supports the socialist agenda. Jewish monotheism’s notion of humans in the Divine image leads directly to autonomy and personal responsibility, which socialism undermines.

    Consider:
    – There are repeated descriptions of how the Jews are to divide up the land (= major financial resource of the time) among individual families and clans. The Jubilee year sounds like socialist leveling – but it actually ensures that “means of production” will forever be widely distributed and privately owned.
    – All Jewish tort law is clearly based on private ownership.
    – Tithes and alms dictated by the Torah amount to just 20 percent of gross yields/income. And they are structured to encourage independence – the able-bodied are expected to harvest the corner of the field left for the poor, the less strong to glean, and only the aged and infirm actually collect alms after others have done the harvesting and winnowing.

  8. Liberal in the US (and perhaps other countries) means socialist or left of center, I suspect you misinterpreted him.

    The reason for Jews´ inclination towards socialism (in its early days, Marx, bolshevism) stems I believe mainly from the appeal of its utopian internationalism, workers of the world unite, as opposed to other political movements which were nationalistic and in some cases even racist and anti-semitic. Their “affinity towards socialism” may be part of anti-semitic discourse but it is true.

  9. And yet we can see the macro-cultural affectations in nation-states. Comparing Germany to Greece for example, one is fiscally solvent and industrious, the other is fiscally profligate and less industrious. Northern Europe to Southern Europe in general. Northern Italy to Southern Italy, regions within a country.

    When I come upon a Jew in the US, unless they are wearing traditional garb, I assume that they are fairly far Left in their politics, and adopt my communication appropriately, until perhaps better information may point to conservative leanings.

    These are not prejudices, but merely the mechanisms of a social being, acting within a complex social meliu, that requires split second decisions about other people’s intentions, mindsets, and cultural norms, 10s of 1000s of times a day.

    Successful people (and socially successful people) are very good at stereotyping and using that information to navigate and interact with people.

    Ill ask a question…

    Knowing nothing else, would you put your financial assets in the trust of a German bank or a Nigerian bank?

    You bigot!

    I have no personal knowledge of German regulatory regimes, nor Nigerian. But it’s a good bet that regardless of the regulatory regime, your financial assets would be safer in German hands. It’s the culture, stupid. In fact those regulatory regimes and their effectiveness result from the culture of the different peoples, itself.

    Thanks for listening. I enjoyed reading the post and comments.

  10. Can’t get to your home page with IE. Have to use Firefox. Surprisingly I can get to an individual post in either browser.

  11. I would say that “affinity” is indeed an awkward term that may misrepresent the (historically true) attraction of the leftist (Marxist to be specific) ideology to the young Jewish population of the time. After all, it (the ideology) provided a clear promise of equality and social justice to people restricted geographically, limited to specific “career” paths, repressed at slightest provocation and without such.

    That the promises turned out to be hollow later is another story.

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