Abram Leon


The Jewish Question


Evolution of the Jewish problem in the nineteenth century

At the beginning of the nineteenth century the immense majority of Jews was concentrated in the backward countries of Eastern Europe. In Poland at the time of the partition of the country there were over a million Jews. According to the Russian census of 1818, the social composition of Eastern Judaism was the following:








and White Russia








The percentage of artisans and farmers indicates the beginning of the social differentiation of Judaism. But in a general way, the structure of Eastern Judaism had not yet undergone any important changes; it remained what it had been for many centuries. Certain travelers’ stories by soldiers who participated in the Russian campaign of Napoleon constitute invaluable testimony relative to the life of the Jews at the beginning of the nineteenth century “Many of them,” says von Furtenbach, “farm out and manage seignorial manors and exploit taverns. Everything is in their hands. They lend money to lords and peasants and they go to purchase merchandise at Leipzig.” [1] Another soldier, the Frenchman Puybusque, in his Lettres sur la guerre en Russie (Paris, 1818), supplies interesting information on the role of the Jews in the economic life of the country: “They were the intermediaries between the peasants and the lords. The lords farmed out the taverns to them and compelled them to sell only drinks made in their manors. On the occasion of festivals, baptisms, burials, marriages, the peasants were compelled to buy at least a bucket of whiskey. The Jews sold them on credit but exacted heavy interest. They intervened in all the commercial operations of the country They were also bankers.” The author relates that constant business relations linked the Polish Jews to their brothers in Germany. They had their own postal service and were informed about stock exchange quotations everywhere in Europe. [2]

The author of Journey of the Moscovite Officer V Bronevsky from Trieste to Constantinople in 1810 states: “Poland should in all justice be called a Jewish kingdom .... The cities and towns are primarily inhabited by them. Rarely will you find a village without Jews. Jewish taverns mark out all the main roads .... Apart from some rare manors which are administered by the lords themselves, all the others are farmed out or pledged to the Jews. They possess enormous capitals and no one can get along without their help. Only some few very rich lords are not plunged up to the neck in debt with the Jews.” [3] “The Jews in the villages,” writes Kamanine in L’archive de la russie méridionale et occidentale, “restrict themselves to farming [leasing] mills, liquor shops and taverns. There is hardly a village without its Jewish ‘farmer:’ Such is the extent of this that the census often confines the idea of farmer with that of Jew and links the profession to the nationality or to the religion. Instead of writing ‘there is no Jew in the village,’ they write: ‘there is no “farmer” in the village.’ ” [4]

Nevertheless, while believing that they were describing the present, these various authors were no longer painting anything, but the past. The secular situation of Judaism in Eastern Europe was, very slowly it is true, being swept away in the current of capitalist economy. Even before substituting itself for the old, the new regime was breaking it. The decay of feudalism preceded its replacement by new capitalist forms. “The numerical growth of the Jews demanded new and greater means of subsistence while the old economic positions were vanishing .... The Jews, adapted for centuries to a natural economy, felt the ground slipping beneath their feet .... In that earlier undeveloped economy they had been the middlemen and had held a virtual monopoly of .... The process of capitalization in Russia and in Poland now led the landed proprietors to attend personally to various branches of production and to drive the Jews out of them. Only a small section of rich Jews could find a favorable field of action in this new situation.” [5]

On the other hand, the immense majority of Jews, consisting of petty merchants, publicans, and peddlers, suffered greatly from this new state of things. The old trade centers of the feudal epoch declined. New industrial and commercial cities supplanted the small towns and fairs. A native bourgeoisie began to develop.

“The economic situation of the Jewish masses had become so critical, even before the partition of Poland, that questions of the transformation of the social structure of the Jews and of their emigration became posed automatically.” [6] Emigration was possible in this period only within the boundaries of the states into which Poland had been divided. The Jewish masses strove to leave the decadent and backward regions of the former aristocratic kingdom with the continually declining possibilities for subsistence, in order to seek new occupations in the more developed sections of the empires which had inherited Poland. As early as 1776 and 1778 several Polish Jewish communities ask the Russian government for permission to emigrate to Russia. “At the beginning of the nineteenth century a large stream of emigration is going from former Poland towards Russia.” [7] The same was true of the regions annexed by Prussia and Austria. The Jews headed for Berlin, for Vienna, for all the centers in which the pulse of a new economic life was beating, where commerce and industry offered them vast openings. “Jewish emigration from Podolia, Volhynia, White Russia and Lithuania, towards Russia, that of Posnan and Polish Jews to England and even to America, all prove that the Jews of Eastern Europe were looking for countries of immigration as early as the first half of the nineteenth century.” [8]

This desire for expatriation went hand in hand with attempts to make the Jews into “useful citizens,” to adapt them to the new situation by making them artisans and farmers. The Polish “Great Sejm” of 1784-88, already had the problem of the “productivization” of the Jews on its agenda. [9] All the governments which had inherited a section of Polish Judaism considered its social structure as an anomaly. Attempts were made to transform the Jews into factory workers. Premiums were granted both to artisans who hired Jewish apprentices and to the Jews who became apprentices. [10]

Thousands of Jews were also colonized in certain regions of Russia. Tsar Alexander I encouraged this colonization. Despite great difficulties at the start, these villages succeeded in becoming acclimated in the long run.

“Two processes characterize the development of the Jewish people in the course of the last century: the process of emigration and the process of social differentiation .... The decay of the feudal system and of feudal property and the rapid growth of capitalism in Central and Eastern Europe created new sources for subsistence, but in a far greater measure they destroyed their positions as intermediaries, by which the greatest part of the Jewish people lived. These processes forced the Jewish masses to change their living places as well as their social appearance; forced them to seek a new place in the world and a new occupation in society.” [11]

At the beginning of the nineteenth century the process of “productivization” is still only in its opening phase. On the one hand, the decline of feudal economy is proceeding rather slowly and the Jews are still able to hang on to their old positions for a long time; on the other hand, the development of capitalism is still clothed in quite primitive forms and a great number ofJews find a vast field for occupations in trade and in artisanry. [12] They played a role as very active commercial agents for young capitalist industry and contributed to the capitalization of agriculture.

In general we may consider that Jewish penetration into capitalist society took place up to the end of the nineteenth century Towards the end of the nineteenth century, however, substantial masses of Jews were compelled to leave Eastern Europe.

The annual average of Jewish emigration was:

1830 to 1870


4,000 to 5,000

1871 to 1880

8,000 to 10,000

1881 to 1900

50,000 to 60,000

1901 to 1914

150,000 to 160,000

During the first period, which extends up to 1870, we witness primarily an internal migration directed towards the great cities. From 1830 to 1870, when annual emigration did not exceed 7,000, the Jewish people increased from 3,281,000 to 7,763,000. Consequently, this substantial natural increase was in the main absorbed within the countries inhabited by the Jews. But what an extraordinary change takes place, beginning with 1881 and even more so after 1901, when Jewish emigration reaches the truly impressive figure of 150,000 to 160,000 per annum! What were the causes for this change?

The process of capitalization of Russian economy was accelerated by the reform of 1863. Agriculture began to produce increasingly for the market. The bonds of serfdom and of feudal restrictions became looser; social differentiation progressed rapidly in the village. A section of peasants became transformed into well-to-do farmers; another section became proletarianized. Capitalization of agriculture had as effect the opening of an important domestic market for means of production (machines, etc.) and for articles of consumption.

Capitalist production in agriculture means in effect the following: (1) division of labor within agriculture due to the specialization of its branches; (2) a growing demand for manufactured products by the enriched peasants and by the proletarianized mass, which has only its labor power to sell and must purchase its subsistence; (3) agricultural production for the market necessitates a more and more extensive use of machines, and this develops industry in the means of production; (4) growth in production of the means of production brings with it a continuous increase of the proletarian mass in the cities, and this contributes also to enlarging the market for means of consumption.

These vast possibilities within the domestic market gave the Jewish masses, crowded out of their former economic positions, the opportunity to integrate themselves into capitalist economy. Workshops and small industries experienced a great expansion.

Whereas the non-Jewish blacksmith or peasant found his way into the factory or the mine, the Jewish proletarianized masses flowed into small industries producing consumers goods. [13]

But there is a fundamental difference between the transformation of the peasant or blacksmith into a steelworker and the transformation of a Jewish merchant into an artisan or garment worker. Capitalist development of the branches of heavy industry is accompanied by a change in the material conditions of production. Not only do the means of production change their destination but they also change their form. The primitive tool becomes the perfected modern machine. The same is not true of the means of consumption. Clothing, whether it be produced for the maker’s own use or for the local or world market, does not change its appearance. The same is not true of the tool which is transformed into the ever increasingly perfected machine and which requires the investment of increasingly greater capital.

In order to undertake the manufacture of machines, it is necessary, from the very beginning, to have a large capital. This is explained, especially in the beginning, by the length of the working period, the “number of consecutive working days required in a branch of production for the completion of the finished product.” [14] “According to the working period required by the specific nature of the product, or by the useful effect aimedat, is short ofr long, a continuous investment of additional circulating capital (wages, raw and auxiliary materials) is required ....” [15]

It is for this reason that from its very beginning production of the means of production has taken place in the capitalist form of large factories, whereas the production of means of consumption can continue to be carried out in the same artisan workshops as before.

It is only much later that the great factory crowds out the workshop and its outmoded methods of work in this latter sphere as well. This follows upon the invention of perfected machines which then invade the sector of the means of consumption. It is, consequently, the growth of fixed capital which here plays a dominant role. [16] In this way conditions of production in these two main sectors of economy are brought to the same level. “Whether a steam engine transfers its value daily to some yarn, which is the product of a continuous labor-process, or for three months to a locomotive, which is the product of a continuous process, is immaterial for the investment of the capital required for teh purchase of the steam engine .... In either case, the reproduction of the steam-engine may not take place until after twenty years.” [17]

The liberation of the peasants in Russia had created a big market for manufactured products. Instead of an economy still largely feudal, the production of exchange values becomes established. Russia begins to become the granary of Europe. Cities, centers of trade and industry, rapidly develop. The Jews leave the small towns en masse m order to settle in the great urban centers, where they contribute heavily to the development of trade and artisan industry (means of consumption). In 1900, out of twenty-one important cities in Poland, Jews are an absolute majority in eleven of them. Migration of the Jews into the large cities is accompanied by a social differentiation which shakes the traditional bases of Judaism.

But the development of the means of production sector brings about a mechanization of agriculture and light industry Machines begin to compete fiercely with the small Jewish artisan workshops. Towards the end of the last century a great mass of non-Jewish workers migrates to the great cities where the rhythm of increase in the Jewish population is falling off and even coming to a complete halt. [18] Jewish artisan industries, which developed because of the expansion of the domestic market, succumb for the most part because of the mechanization and modernization of industry.

It was difficult for the Jewish artisan to compete with the peasant masses flowing in from the country who had a very low standard of living and were accustomed to hard physical labor from earliest times. Of course, in some places Jewish workers, surmounting all difficulties, also found a place in mechanized industries, but for the most part they had to take the path of exile at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century The process of transformation of the Jewish precapitalist merchant into a craft worker is crossed by another process, that of the elimination of the Jewish worker by the machine. [19]

This last process influences the first. The Jewish masses, crowded out of the small towns are no longer able to become proletarianized and are forced to emigrate. Herein, in large part lies the explanation of the enormous growth in Jewish emigration at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century Whereas dissolution of the old feudal economy and creation of the domestic market had similar effects on the Jewish and non- Jewish masses, industrial mechanization and concentration produced opposite results. From that also arise certain different tendencies in Jewish emigration from those of general emigration. Jewish emigration is relatively late and continues to increase, whereas the reverse is often the case for general emigration. For example, in Germany annual emigration, which fluctuated between 100,000 and 200,000 persons from 1880 to 1892, never exceeded 20,000 at the beginning of the twentieth century This heavy drop in German emigration is explained by the tremendous economic development of Germany in this period.

The phenomenon of the elimination of the Jews from industry leads us quite naturally to the subject of the Jewish proletariat.

The confinement of the Jewish working class in consumer goods industries undoubtedly constitutes one of the most remarkable phenomena of the economic and social structure of the Jewish people. The fact that a tiny number of Jewish workers is involved in the initial phases of industrial production, whereas their percentage in the final phases is extremely high, strikingly characterizes what has become known as the Jewish anomaly. This economic base of the Jewish proletariat is not alone weak in itself, it is also continually contracted by technological development. The Jewish workers not only suffer the inconveniences inherent in craft industry notably social weakness, seasonal employment, sharpening exploitation and bad working conditions, but they are increasingly driven out of their economic positions.

Capitalist economy is characterized by the uninterrupted growth of constant capital at the expense of variable capital, or to put this another way, by the increase in the importance of capital constituted by means of production and the decrease in the importance of capital which buys the form of labor. This economic process produces the familiar phenomena of elimination of the worker by the machine, of annihilation of the artisan workshop by the factory and of a decrease in the specific weight of the section of the class producing consumers’ goods relative to the other section which is engaged in the manufacture of means of production.

Official economics thus characterizes this process:

“The one certain fact – and it is a very important one – is that the economic evolution of the past hundred or hundred and fifty years has operated in the direction of the increase in relative importance of fixed capital and the decrease in relative importance of circulating capital.” [20]

The more primitive man is the more important is the work which allows him to satisfy his immediate needs. But the more humanity progresses, the more it turns first towards the tool, and later towards the machine which enormously increases its productive power. First the tool is an appendage to man, then man becomes an appendage to the tool.

This recollection of a rather well-known economic process serves but to underline its decisive importance in the specific situation of the Jewish working class and allows us to proceed immediately to our subject. The question which becomes posed immediately and which has not up to now received any attention is to find the historic cause or causes for this state of things.

In the substantial study dedicated to Jewish economy at the beginning of the nineteenth century which was undertaken by Lestschinsky in his book The Development of the Jewish People in the Last 100 Years, he writes as follows on the professional composition of Jewish and non-Jewish artisans in this period:

“The most superficial glance over this comparative statistical material is sufficient to note that those trades were in the hands ofJewish artisans which had the smallest chance of going over to factory production, whereas, precisely to the contrary, the professions most adapted to this transformation were widespread among non-Jewish artisans. In Galicia, non-Jews constituted 99.6 percent of the metalworkers, 99.2 percent of the weavers, 98.2 percent of the blacksmiths, 98.1 percent of the spinners (whereas, in sharp contrast, 94.3 percent of the tailors and 70.0 percent of the furriers were Jews). These first four trades were the labor foundation on which the textile and metallurgical industries were later constructed. Without these trained workers which large- scale industry inherited from artisanry the birth of these industries would have been impossible .... It is in this historic fact that the fundamental cause may lie for the weak penetration of large-scale industry by the Jews. It was no more than natural that the first workers’ cadres in the metallurgical and textile plants should consist exclusively of non-Jews. And these compact masses of non-Jewish workers certainly had a natural attractive force for the non-Jewish populations which were closer to them from the religious, national, and psychological point of view, whereas, on the other hand, they repelled the Jewish mass which has remained foreign to them in every way up to this day.” [21]

Lestschinsky’s explanation contributes to clarifying the problem with which we are engaged and shows us the first immediate cause for the specific professional structure of the Jewish working class. But in its turn, it places before us a new problem, or rather raises the old one to a new level. If we now clearly see the present Jewish worker as a descendant of the eighteenth century artisan, we must still find an explanation of the different professional composition of Jewish and non-Jewish artisans in that period. Why were the former primarily tailors and the non-Jewish artisans blacksmiths? Why were the latter to be found in trades linked with production, and the former confined to clothing, producing consequently for consumption? To pose the question in this way is practically to resolve it.

Natural economy which ruled Eastern Europe in this period was characterized by the almost exclusive production of use values and implied an almost complete absence of the division of labor (into trades).

Each family was self-sufficient or practically so, producing everything necessary for the satisfaction of its needs. Here is how Vandervelde describes this state of affairs:

“Each family is sufficient to itself or practically so: it is lodged in a house made of timber coming from the nearest forest, and obtains straw and mortar right on the spot. It warms itself exclusively and primarily with turf, heather, furze, dead wood gathered in the vicinity It spins, weaves, transforms flax and hemp of its own harvesting into clothes; it feeds itself with its own wheat, potatoes, vegetables ... it bakes its bread, makes its wine ... or beer, dries its own tobacco, exchanges its eggs and butter against rare goods which it secures from without: candles, oil, ironware, etc. In short, it produces almost everything which it consumes and consumes all that it produces, selling only what is strictly necessary to meet very limited money expenses.” [22]

The same could be said, with very little correction, regarding the feudal manor.

It is readily understandable that while such an economic system does not absolutely exclude professional specialization, the few trades that find a place within it are the products of quite exceptional conditions.

“We should consider the labors of the blacksmith and the potter as the first which rose to special professions because they demanded from the very beginning more skill and more specialized working equipment. Even among nomad peoples, special artisans devoted themselves to the iron trade.” [23]

It is therefore easy to understand that even in the era of natural economy, the trades of blacksmith and of weaver [24] were spread throughout the villages and abounded in the cities, which, in Eastern Europe, were almost exclusively military and administrative centers.

“In Galicia, in Bucovina, in many parts of Hungary, Romania, and Transylvania, as among the Yugoslav peoples, there were up to recent times no artisans other than blacksmiths.” [25]

Non-Jewish artisanry in Eastern Europe was therefore the product of special causes which, in a society based on natural and not exchange economy, nevertheless requires an exchange of services.

Completely different was the point of departure of Jewish artisanry. It was born in the specific conditions of the small Jewish town and produced for that town.

But whoever speaks of the small Jewish town of the eighteenth century speaks of an agglomeration of small traders, publicans, bankers, and intermediaries of all sorts. [26]

The Jewish artisan therefore did not work for the peasant producers, but for the merchants, the banker intermediaries. It is here that we must seek the fundamental cause for the specific professional structure of the Jewish proletariat and of its ancestor, Jewish artisanry. The non-Jewish artisan did not produce articles of consumption for the peasant because, as we have seen, the latter was sufficient to himself in this regard. But that was precisely the principal occupation of the Jewish artisan, his clientele being composed of men devoted to trade in money and in goods, thus non-producers by definition. Alongside of the peasant, we find the non-Jewish blacksmith artisan; close to the money man, we find the Jewish tailor. [27]

The professional difference existing between the Jewish and non-Jewish artisans therefore derives in the last analysis from the difference in their spheres of activity.

It goes without saying that this explanation is necessarily schematic and like all schemas allows us to understand phenomena in their general aspect but cannot present the diversity of real life with complete exactness. But to try to reflect the latter with exactness and in detail would mean in turn to make it difficult to understand the general processes which derive from it. Sociology is therefore compelled to make a complete and continuous circuit: from reality to theoretical schema and the reverse. Those who reproach this method for not reflecting the entire diversity of life; have not completely understood this dialectical interdependence.

It should also be noted that the struggles which broke out in certain periods between Jewish and non-Jewish artisans appear to have been provoked by the encroachment of one section of artisans upon the sphere of activity of another and should not be attributed to some alleged national competition which was simply inconceivable in the feudal epoch because it is prior to the formation of nations. “Nationality” is “a sentiment unknown to the heterogeneous society of the Middle Ages.” [28]

By way of illustration, we quote this passage from an ancient chronicle of Prague, the Ramschackie Chronik of 1491: “Jews were forbidden to do work for Christians but they were all free to work for Jewish clients.”

The city council of Prague also complains in the same period: “that the Jews pay no attention to the old privileges and ordinances whereby they are forbidden to work for Christians.” “At Posen,” states Graetz, “Jews were allowed to engage in certain trades, like that of tailoring, but only to satisfy their own needs and not for Christians.”

It seems to me that we have thus traversed the causal chain leading from the present-day economic structure of the Jewish proletariat back to its origins. It is complete in this sense that it brings us back to the social problem of a more general order, which has already been explored: that of the social and economic function of the Jews in. the precapitalist era.




1. Friedrich von Furtenbach, Krieg gegen Russland und Russische Gefangenschaft (Leipzig, 1912), pp.101, 204.

2. Yivo Studies in History (Wilno, 1937), vol.2, p.521.

3. Quoted by W. Dubnow in On the Economic History of the Jews in Russia, Writings on Economics and Statistics (Yiddish). J. Lestschinsky ed. (Berlin, 1928), vol.1, p.92

4. Quoted by Jacob Lestschinsky, The Development of the Jewish People in the Last One Hundred Years (Yiddish) (Berlin, 1928), p.55.

5. S.B. Weinryb, Neueste Wirtschaftsgeschichte der Juden in Russland und Polen (Breslau, 1934), pp.5-8.

6. Lestschinsky, op. cit., p.25.

7. Ibid., p.28.

8. Ibid., p.29.

9. Ibid., p.30.

10. Ibid., pp.32-34.

11. Ibid., p.1.

12. The struggle between “Haskalah” (the movement for emancipation) and orthodoxy between those who wanted to transform the economic life of Judaism as well as its cultural life as against the supporters of old traditions, is a reflection of the antagonism between the new Jewish bourgeoisie profiting from capitalist development and tending towards complete assimilation and the old feudal layers attached to their ancient mode of existence. This struggle continues throughout the entire course of the Nineteenth Century and ends in the defeat of the assimilationists. This defeat is due not so much to the solidity of the old economic forms as to the fragility of the new ones.

13. This process is analyzed later in the chapter.

14. Marx, Capital, op. cit., vol.2, p.308.

15. Ibid., vol.2, p.309.

16. The long persistence of the system of home industry has its basis in the slightness of the fixed capital which it requires. See Weber, op. cit., p.160.

17. Marx, op. cit., vol.2, p.308.

18. “In the nineteenth century the increase in the Jewish population in the cities of Poland was greater than that of the non-Jewish population. Towards the end of the last century in the period when large-scale industry was created and when great masses of non-Jewish workers migrated to the cities, the rhythm of Jewish population increase slowed down and in places the movement came to a complete halt.” Congrès Juif Mondial, Départment Économique, La Situation Économique des Juifs dans le Monde (Paris, 1938), pp.215-16.

19. A similar phenomenon can also be seen in the rural sphere. “In those districts where agricultural capitalism is developed most, this process of the introducing wage labour, simultaneously with the introduction of machinery, cuts across another process, namely the wage workersare squeezed out by the machine.” Lenin, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, in Selected Works vol.1, p.275.

20. Ansiaux, op. cit., vol.1, p.137.

21. Lestschinsky, op. cit., p.60.

22. Emile Vandervelde, L’Exode Rural et le Retour aux Champs (Paris, 1903), p.70.

23. A. Menes, Craft Industry among the Jews in Biblical and Talmudic Times, Writings on Economics and Statistics (Yiddish), J. Lestschinsky, editor (Berlin, 1928), vol.1, p.65.

24. The trade of weaver, like that of the blacksmith, demanded a special professional formation and early became separated from household economy The weaver in the feudal era is a traveler who moves from one place to another, from one village to another, in pursuing his trade

25. Ansiaux, op. cit.

26. All the Jews did not live in small towns, far from it, but their social role in the large cities or in the village was the same as in the small town. The latter, however, by its specific aspect, best characterized this social role. According to a governmental census in 1818, in the Ukraine and Byelorussia:

86.5 percent of the Jews were traders;
11.6 percent of the Jews were artisans;
1.9 percent of the Jews were farmers.

In Galicia, in 1820, 81 percent of the traders were Jews.

27. Certain crafts, close to trade, were also often exercised by Jews. Such was the goldsmith’s craft.

28. Pirenne, Belgian Democracy, op. cit., p.143.


Last updated on 24.1.2002