Abram Leon


The Jewish Question


Contradictory trends in the Jewish problem during the period of the rise of capitalism

The French Revolution put the finishing touches to the course of the economic and social evolution of Judaism in Western Europe. The development of industrial capitalism will speed up the penetration of the Jews into the ranks of the bourgeoisie and their cultural assimilation. The triumphant march of the Napoleonic armies was the signal for Jewish emancipation everywhere. Napoleonic policy reflected the will of bourgeois society to assimilate the Jews completely. But in the regions still ruled by the feudal system, important difficulties surged across the road to emancipation. Thus, contrary to the Jews of Bordeaux, completely absorbed into the bourgeois class, the Alsatian Jews were little differentiated from their ancestors of the Middle Ages. The peasant riots against Jewish usury compelled Napoleon to promulgate exceptional laws against Alsatian Judaism. Bourgeois juridical norms proved inapplicable to a feudal state of society. The same was true of Poland where formal legality for all citizens before the law introduced by Napoleon was not applicable to Jews “for a period of ten years” – as the face-saving formula put it. It is necessary to add that the great mass of Polish Jews, led by fanatical rabbis, was resolutely opposed to emancipation. Except for a small layer of wealthy bourgeois, the Polish Jews in no way felt the need for civil equality.

But in general, from the beginning of the nineteenth century, Western Judaism enters on the road of complete assimilation. By the end of the eighteenth century, one half of the Jews of Berlin had become converted to Christianity in a period of thirty years. Those who remained faithful to the Jewish religion vigorously denied that they formed a distinct nation. “Without a land, without a state, without a language, there can be no nation, and that is why Judaism long ago ceased to constitute a nation,” said Riesser, one of the representatives of the German Jews in the first half of the nineteenth century. [1] “We are Germans, and Germans only, in whatever concerns nationality,” a Jewish professor of Berlin wrote somewhat later, in 1879.

Contrary to Western Europe, where their assimilation was favored by capitalism, in Eastern Europe capitalism uprooted the Jews from their secular economic positions. Thus, by provoking a flow ofJews towards the West with its left hand, it was destroying the accomplishments of its right hand. Waves of Eastern Jews continuously flowed towards the Western countries and instilled new life into the moribund body of Judaism. [2]

“Our great popular masses of the East, who are still rooted in Jewish tradition, or at least live in its atmosphere, form a barrier to the disappearance of Western Judaism .... Western Judaism no longer exists save as a reflection of Eastern Judaism.[3]

In order to understand the importance of the immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe, it is sufficient to recall that in Vienna, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, there were only several hundred Jews, and that in the twentieth century, their number reached 176,000.

The massive emigration of Jews to Western Europe and mainly to America went hand in hand with a complete transformation of the territorial structure of Judaism. We know that the advance of capitalism was accompanied by an enormous extension of urban developments. From the middle of the nineteenth century on, the great centers of commercial and industrial life became a powerful attractive pole for the Jews.

The concentration of the Jewish masses in great cities was as obvious in the countries of immigration as in the regions from which the Jews originated. The Jews en masse forsook the little towns which had for centuries been the centers of their economic life and flowed either into the commercial and industrial cities of Poland and Russia, or towards the great cities of the Western world – Vienna, London, Berlin, Paris, and New York. “Far into the nineteenth century the greater part of world Jewry inhabited Eastern Europe, where in the absence of good means of communication small towns continued to offer opportunities to traders [and] during that period the Jews lived predominantly in small to .... According to a statistical survey of the Polish provinces of Kiev, Volhynia, and Podolia, made in the second half of the eighteenth century, there were in every village, on the average, seven Jewish inhabitants, i.e., one Jewish family. But there were innumerable villages and very few towns; in East Galicia, therefore, 27.0 percent of the Jewish population lived in villages, and in West Galicia, even 43.1 percent .... Similar conditions prevailed in a few German states, for instance, in Hesse and Baden.” [4]

This condition underwent a decisive change in the twentieth century Substantial Jewish masses became concentrated in the urban centers of the world.

In Russia, between 1847 and 1926, the Jewish population in communities numbering more than ten thousand multiplied eightfold. In 1847, there were only three Jewish communities comprising more than ten thousand people in the entire Russian Empire. There were twenty-eight of these in 1897 and thirty-eight in 1926 (in the old territory of Holy Russia).

The percentage of Russian Jews living in large communities was:










Here are the corresponding figures for Germany:










More than three-quarters of American Jews are presently living in communities of more than 10,000 persons. The tremendous Jewish agglomerations of New York (2,000,000), Warsaw (300,000 to 500,000), Paris, London, etc., bear witness to the fact that the Jews have become the “greatest urban people in the world.” The concentration of the Jewish masses in the great cities undoubtedly constitutes one of the most important phenomena of Jewish life in the modern capitalist epoch.

We have already examined the difference between Jewish emigration up to 1880 and the exodus after that date. Up to 1880, the states inhabited by the Jews still offered vast possibilities for penetration into capitalist economy; nrigratiori was primarily internal. After this date, events are precipitous: feudal economy is smashed to bits and with it goes the ruin of the artisan branches of capitalism in which the Jews are very widely represented. The Jews begin to forsake their countries of origin in great masses.

“Between 1800 and 1880 the number of Jews in the United States, the main destination of Jewish emigrants, rose from a few thousands to 230,000 – which points to an average yearly immigration of about 2,000; between 1881 and 1899, the yearly average reached 30,000 and between 1900 and 1914, 100,000. Adding the emigration to other overseas countries (Canada, the Argentine, South Africa, Palestine, etc.) and to Central and Western Europe, the total Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe during the years 1800 to 1880 must be put at about 250,000, i.e. a yearly average of about 3,000; for 1881-99, at 1,000,000 and a yearly average of about 50,000; and for 1900-1914 at 2,000,000, and an average of 135,000. Percentually these figures place the East European Jews first among emigrant nations; about the middle of the period 1881-1914, their number in Russia, Galicia, and Romania amounted to about 6.5 million, and measured by that figure, the emigrants formed about 46 percent. The corresponding Italian rate, which is otherwise the highest in Europe, was only 15 percent after the re-emigrants have been deducted – these were numerous among the Italians, but very few among the Jews.” [5]

This great emigration was favored by the high birthrate of the Jews. Their number in the world rose as follows:





















Between 1825 and 1925, the number of Jews multiplied five times, a rate of increase one and a half times larger than that of the population of Europe.

“The number of Jews must certainly exceed 18 million at the present time. It is important to note that despite the high emigration figures, not only has the number of Jews in Eastern Europe not decreased but it has even greatly increased:’ “Judaism in Eastern Europe sent abroad almost four million persons in the course of the last thirty-five years and yet not only has the number of Jews in Eastern Europe not diminished during this period but it has greatly increased; it has gone from less tan six to eight millions.” [6]

Emigration contributed to the social differentiation of Judaism, a process which had made rapid progress in the course of the nineteenth century.

At least 90 percent of the Jews were agents and merchants at the beginning of the capitalist era. In the twentieth century we can consider that in America we have almost two million Jewish proletarians, who are almost 40 percent of all the economically active Jews. [7]

Here is the professional division for all Jews in 1932:




















The number of Jewish workers, relatively low in the backward countries like Poland where it reaches about 25 percent of all persons economically active, reaches 46 percent in America. The professional structure of the Jewish working class still differs greatly from that of the proletariat. of other peoples. Thus white collar workers form 30 to 36 percent of all Jewish wage earners, which is a proportion three to four times as great as among other nations. Agricultural workers, practically completely missing among the Jews, constitute from 15 to 25 percent of non-Jewish workers. Sixty to 70 percent of the Jews employed in industry are in reality worker-artisans (in Eastern Europe 80 percent of the proletarians work in shops and not in factories) whereas among the workers of other nationalities, 75 to. 80 percent are factory workers. Finally, the Jewish workers are employed primarily in branches of consumer goods; non- Jewish workers in the same branches form only a small percentage of the proletariat as a whole.

Comparative statistics of the professional division of Jewish and “Aryan” workers will permit of an easier grasp of this phenomenon.

























Printing and paper







IN POLAND (1931) [8]






Business and transportation






Small industry



Medium and large industry






Electricity, water, railroads






These statistics clearly show that the Jews are employed primarily in artisanry whereas non-Jewish workers, on the contrary are concentrated mainly in heavy industry Jews are relatively five times more numerous than non-Jewish workers in the clothing industry but in metallurgy, the textile industry, and building, non-Jewish workers are two or three times more numerous than Jewish workers.

However, while the professional structure of the Jewish working class still differs greatly from that of the non-Jewish, poverty is driving them more and more to the penetration, despite all barriers, into professions which have been inaccessible to them up to now.

Some twenty years ago, when a great industrialist of Lodz was asked about the ban against Jewish workers in his factories, he replied: “I do not want to have two thousand partners in my business.” But prior to this war [World War II], 15 percent of Jewish workers were operating machines.

Judaism has therefore undergone a very important transformation in the capitalist epoch. The people-class has become differentiated socially. But this process, while of considerable scope, is accompanied by a multitude of contradictory tendencies, which have not as yet allowed the crystallization of a stable form for Judaism in our period. It is far easier to say what Judaism has been than to define what it is.

In effect, the evolution of the Jewish question resulting from capitalist development has been thrust onto diametrically opposite paths. On the one hand, capitalism favored the economic assimilation of Judaism and consequently its cultural assimilation; on the other hand, by uprooting the Jewish masses, concentrating them in cities, provoking the rise of anti-Semitism, it stimulated the development of Jewish nationalism. The “renaissance of the Jewish nation,” the formation of a modern Jewish culture, elaboration of the Yiddish language, Zionism, all these accompany the processes of emigration and of the concentration of Jewish masses in the cities and go hand in hand with the development of modern anti-Semitism. In all parts of the world, along all the roads of exile, the Jewish masses, concentrated in special quarters, created their own special cultural centers, their newspapers, their Yiddish schools. Naturally it was in the countries of greatest Jewish concentration, in Russia, Poland, and the United States, that the national movement took on its greatest scope.

But the development of history is dialectical. At the same time that the bases for a new Jewish nationality were being elaborated, all the conditions were likewise being created for its disappearance. Whereas the first Jewish generations in the countries of immigration still remained firmly attached to Judaism, the new generations rapidly lost their special customs and language.

“Among the East European immigrants to Western Europe, America, and other non-European countries, Yiddish is still retained, at any rate in the first generation, though a large number of English words are introduced, so that it is growing into a dialect different from the Polish or Lithuanian Yiddish. The second generation speak both Yiddish and the language of the country, while the third no longer know Yiddish ....” [9] “The Yiddish press in the United States developed strongly during the last fifty years because of the coming in of more than two million East European Jews who knew no English. . .. But of recent years, a marked decline has set in of the Yiddish press, immigration having stopped, while the younger generation is becoming Americanized.” [10]

In 1920, according to official statistics, Yiddish was the mother tongue of 32.1 percent of American Jews; in 1930, ~f 27.8 percent. In Hungary, Yiddish disappeared almost completely. In the census of 1920, 95.2 percent declared Hungarian as their mother tongue, 4.0 percent German, and 0.8 percent other languages.

Throughout the world: in 1900,60.6 percent of the Jews spoke Yiddish; in 1930, 42.7 percent of the Jews spoke Yiddish.

During this same period that the use of Yiddish is declining, we witness a considerable growth in mixed marriages. The more highly developed the country, the more frequent are its mixed marriages.

In Bohemia, 44.7 percent of all marriages in which at least one party was Jewish were mixed marriages. As against this, the number of mixed marriages in sub-Carpathian Russia and Slovakia was insignificant. [11]

Ratio of mixed marriages between Jews and non-Jews
to purely Jewish marriages [12]



















An increase in conversions is also noted. Thus in Vienna, the average of Jewish conversions went from 0.4 percent in 1870 to 4.4 percent in 1916-20. However, the general weakening of religion removes most of the importance from this index.

We thus see how precarious are the bases for the “national renaissance” of Judaism. Emigration, at first a powerful obstacle to assimilation and a “nationalization” factor of the Jews, rapidly changes into an instrument of fusion of the Jews with other peoples. The concentration of Jewish masses in the great cities, which thus became a sort of “territorial base” for the Jewish nationality, cannot long impede the process of assimilation. The atmosphere of the great urban centers constitutes a melting pot in which all national differences are rapidly wiped out.

While capitalism first created conditions for a certain Jewish “national renaissance,” by uprooting millions of Jews, by tearing them from their traditional living conditions and concentrating them in large cities, it soon contributes to accelerating the process of assimilation. The development of Yiddish, for example, is followed by its rapid decline. Capitalist development, although at times in rather unexpected ways, ends with the fusion of the Jews among other peoples. But at the beginning of the twentieth century the signs of capitalist degeneration become manifest. The Jewish question, which seems to be developing normally in the nineteenth century rebounds with unprecedented sharpness as a result of the decline of capitalism. The solution of the Jewish question appears to be farther off than ever.




1. S.M. Dubnow, Die Neueste Geschichte des Jüdischen Volkes (Berlin, 1920-24), vol.2, p.42.

2. “The flow of Eastern Jews into Western Europe stopped and probably saved the Western Jews from the complete disappearance which was inevitable.” Lestschinsky, op. cit., p.9.

“Without immigration from Eastern Europe, the small Jewish communites of England, France and Belgium would probably have lost entirely their Jewish character. Also German Jewry ....” Ruppin, op. cit., p.63

3. Jacob Klatzkin, Probleme des Modernen Judentum (Berlin, 1918), p.46.

4. Ruppin, op. cit., pp.31-33.

5. Ibid., p.45.

6. Yiddishe Economic (Wilno, January-February 1938), p.11.

7. The percentage of employees and workers was:




























8. Yiddishe Economic (July-August, 1938), p.317.

9. Ruppin, op. cit., pp.289-90.

10. Ibid., p.351.

11. Yiddishe Economic (April-June, 1939), p.176.

12. Based on Ruppin, op. cit.. Leon’s operation on Ruppin’s statistics here appears to be incorrect. We therefore append an abstract of Ruppin’s table (pp.319-20). Despite the differences, these confirm Leon’s contention. – Tr.


Year or Period

To every 100 Jews entering
marriage, mixed marriages
were contracted by






















Last updated on 24.1.2002