And Economics

by Ludwig Lewisohn

This is the great cry of the age. Everything is due to economic causes; according to the Marxists, history is to be interpreted solely by the varying methods of production; all we do and all we are is supposed to be determined by hunger-urge and belly-needs. Many Jews of the younger generation are passionately devoted to this argument and to this kind of thinking because—I am very much afraid because—it offers them (however they rationalize) a final apparent escape from their Jewishness and the difficult yoke of Judaism. It is far easier to be something of a Communist (without being a party member) than to be something of a moral hero, which is the minimum harsh duty of every good Jew.

The inner (not the outer) argument runs thus: if anti-Semitism (like everything else) is due to the economic structure of society, then we have but to change that structure to eliminate both the pressure upon us and our duty to be loyal Jews. In brief: the economic argument provides today and here the easiest way out.

Let us examine that argument for a moment regard to ourselves. There is no doubt at all that the economic pressure on us is heavy; there is no doubt that in both Poland and Germany economic motives play an enormous role and that a good part of neo-nationalist ideology is everywhere a disguise for brutally driving the Jews out of their positions in the economic structure. Nor do I deny, nay, I would be the first to emphasize the notorious fact that here in America, too, the rope is beginning to cut into our flesh and that especially our young men and women are being faced by iron walls of exclusion. I have received letters and heard stories and have grieved bitterly over those who, driven to a last extremity, have denied name and faith and race for a morsel of bread.

Is this economic pressure due to economic causes? Or are the economic conditions of a contracting order only the occasion for channelling the same old impulses of hatred and of dread in a different fashion? We can examine the question best by a parable which lifts the essential truth out of the too huge welter of our society and isolates it from the too violent winds of doctrine.—A polar expedition is overtaken by an unseasonably early freezing of the straits that are its communication with the outside world. It settles down for the winter, which threatens to be long. Staff and crew consist of fifty men. A severe and accurate inventory is made of food and tobacco and all things needful and every man gets his equal share. But one day a fire breaks out in the hold of the ship and a part of the necessary stores is destroyed. A new inventory is made and the daily portions of each man now are so small that he is perpetually tormented by hunger and by thirst. Moreover, cruel storms sweep the ice day by day and the nerves of the hungry men are set on edge. They want both more food and drink and some way of abreacting their irritation and their bitterness. They scowl; they mutter. They seek out the commander. We could have more per man, say they, if A and B and C got none. For A and B and C are strangers and interlopers anyhow and have doubtless cursed this expedition and brought our evil fate upon us. Therefore they deserve to starve to death anyhow. We shall raid the store-rooms unles A and B and C get nothing at all. And the commander yields, though with an evil enough conscience. But something of ancestral dread awakens in him too. The scape-goats must die.

Need I interpret? Were A and B and C starved to death from economic motives? Would it have occurred to the crew to single them out, had the crew not had both sub-consciously and consciously the unalterable conviction from the beginning on that A and B and C were different from themselves and visibly and morally other and not upon the same plane or basis and not dowered among themselves with the same inalienable rights? And no heroism on the part of the three men in question and no memory of goodness and no attempt on their part to be precisely like the others—nay, to be more like the others than those others themselves—saved them in this evil and tragic hour. What alone could have saved them? Not to be able to be singled out; not, in fact, to be in any respect other than the others; to be born again of other ancestors with other historic experiences in other lands. Or else they would have been saved had all the crew been of their blood and seed and vision. In either case they could not have been objects of a hostile perception of difference. And it was of this hostile perception of their difference that they perished, not of the shortage of the stores.

In Other words: in an economically expanding society the economic weapon is not primarily used against us. There is enough for all—#en including ourselves; in an economically contracting society the economic weapon is used against us with signal ferocity. But all weapons are used against us because we are ourselves; they are not used in the void against non-existent beings. The roots of anti-Semitism are not economic. The roots and ultimate causes of nothing are economic….

And the Soviet Union? I am coming back to that. Meanwhile we are not in the Soviet Union. Our lives (luckily!) lie here. Our remedies must be adapted to this society and applied within it.

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