What is old is sometimes new again. In recent years, socialism—the ideology that gave birth to some of the worst horrors of the 20th and bloodiest century of the Common Era—is back. Only 30 years after it was consigned to an unlamented grave with the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is making a political return.
Part of this surge in sympathy for socialism is due to Bernie Sanders’s presidential candidacy, as well as the notoriety gained by one of his greatest supporters: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who like the Vermont senator is an avowed Socialist.
A poll taken earlier this year by Gallup showed that some four in 10 Americans embraced some form of socialism. While a majority of those polled—51 percent—said that socialism would be a bad thing for the country, a staggering 43 percent said it would be a good thing. Indeed, as Gallup also noted, a majority of Democrats have been telling them that they viewed socialism positively since 2010.
It’s not clear that many of those who tell pollsters they are inclined towards socialism understand what they are saying. Some may just like Bernie or AOC or hate President Donald Trump, or view it as a catchall phrase expressing very liberal views about domestic subjects or antagonism towards big business. But whatever it means, there’s no doubt that the stigma attached to socialism during the struggle against communism during the Cold War, coupled with the historical record of what happens when Socialists take over nations, has faded.
The irony about all this, as scholar Ruth Wisse noted in a brilliant lecture given at third annual conference on Jews and Conservatism—an event sponsored by the Jewish Leadership Conference and supported by the Tikvah Foundation—is that “Jewish socialism” is dead.
By that, Wisse—arguably the greatest living authority on Yiddish literature, as well as a formidable and insightful commentator on Jewish history and politics—was describing an ideology that is largely extinct.
Prior to World War II and the Holocaust, supporters of the Socialist Bund Party were not merely ubiquitous in Jewish life, but more numerous than even Zionists in many places. Jewish Socialists created an important body of literature and won the political allegiances of many Jews who saw in Marxism an escape from both economic misery and religious prejudice.
Yet those hopes—both in terms of the endemic economic failure of Socialist systems and the promise of equal rights for Jews—were ultimately dashed by the success of the revolution in Russia. The same is true elsewhere in places where the extreme left has subsequently gained power, as events in Cuba and Venezuela subsequently proved.
Jewish Socialists didn’t wish to abandon their Jewish identities. They dreamed of a world in which Yiddish-speaking Jews would exercise a degree of autonomy and nurture a culture whereby capitalism would be routed and replaced with a more just system.
They soon discovered a profound contradiction between the promises of socialism for Jews and what it actually delivered. In a system built on compulsion and where governments could dictate behavior to their subjects, Jews inevitably found themselves being victimized and told to give up their separate identity.
The Jews of the Soviet Union were crushed. The war on religious beliefs was led by other Jews who were true believers in the new faith and determined to wipe out all elements of Jewish life other than those that could be controlled and manipulated by an all-powerful state that didn’t hesitate to eradicate any spark of freedom, faith or links to Jewish identity and Zionism.
The only place where Jewish socialism succeeded, at least for a time, was in Israel, where the power of the institutions it created helped build the state. Even there, such ideas were ultimately no match for the genius of the market economy. The inherent inefficiencies of top-down, government-run economics could not prop up failing institutions like kibbutzim forever. Still, the contrast between the kibbutzim in their heyday and collective farming elsewhere was that Jews were free to leave and not compelled to become state serfs. Nowhere else was socialism tried so freely, and as a result, its terrible shortcomings were less in evidence.
Jewish socialism was a particular failure because language alone couldn’t sustain it. Yiddish is back as a popular field of study and is still the everyday language of Chassidic enclaves, even though the Socialist Jewish schools, organizations and the Bund have long since faded into oblivion. Yiddish alone was not a transmissible value. Cultural Jewishness could not prevent assimilation or intermarriage in free Diaspora societies.
The point about socialism that today’s enthusiasts forget is how closely it is linked to the worst tragedies of the last century. It’s hard for people to admit that the evidence shows that it did far more harm than good. Governments are needed to help those who fall through the cracks of systems rooted in economic freedom, but giving the state so much power inevitably leads to tyranny. And that is something that’s always bad for the Jews.
But the point about Wisse’s autopsy on socialism is that its legacy is antithetical to Jewish interests. Today, the Socialist International, which once honored former Israeli President Shimon Peres as one of its leaders, is a bastion of the BDS movement and therefore opposes the Jewish state’s existence. Sanders embodies the irony that the man who stands a chance of becoming the nation’s first Jewish or Socialist president is someone who gave up the practice of Judaism and is not supportive of Israel. Nor is it irrelevant to point out that the greatest enemies of Israel and the most blatant purveyors of anti-Semitism in our political system, like AOC’s fellow “Squad” members Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), have endorsed him.
Neither is the willingness of an avowed Socialist political faction like Britain’s Labour Party to embrace an open anti-Semite like Jeremy Corbyn as its leader and to become a haven for Jew-haters an accident of history. The same is true of the choice of left-wing academic elites in the West to support an anti-Semitic movement like BDS.
If in the past anti-Semitism was derided by some on the left as the “socialism of fools,” Wisse rightly notes that socialism has now become “the anti-Semitism of the enlightened.” The death of Jewish socialism and an honest look at how totalitarianism sprung from its bosom is a warning from history that Jewish communities everywhere can’t afford to ignore.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.