The Generation cz. 1 b

Przyslal Jacek Schatz

jacek schatz



Czesc 1 a


Thus, the range of theories and explanations of Jewish radicalism covers almost all possible grounds. Roughly speaking, one can divide them into those which seek explanation in psychological factors, in cultural predicament or in social situation. Most of these theories tend to be monistic, i.e., they tend to select one factor, or one group of factors, to explain the phenomenon. Some of them are consciously ahistorical; others – as those dealing with Jewish participation in the American New Left – seek a time-bound explanation that cannot be applied to other periods (as Glazer’s empirical observation of the nurtured atmosphere of an earlier political dissidency in the families from which the New Left Jewish members grew up, or their apparent intellectuality).

Theories attributing Jewish radicalism solely or mainly to Jewish cultural heritage prove insufficient by the very facts of life. Those most knowledgeable in the principles of Judaism and who practiced it in their everyday life, i.e. the observant Jews, were far from from social and political radicalism. Also, radicals have always been a minority among the Jews. Moreover, as Charles Liebman (1973) points out in his criticism of Fuchs` view that traditional Jewish values are the source of Jewish liberalism, it is not enough to show that some values promote liberalism (or radicalism); in order to prove such a connection it is also necessary to show the absence of values which would encourage conservatism. If not, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that Jews are selective in choosing the values they are influenced by.

On the other hand, the impact of some traditional Jewish values, such as love for learning, intellectuality and messianic longings cannot be denied. It is, for instance, apparent that among the different dimensions of the dynamic structure of Judaism there always was a rebellious and universalist one, and that the kind of intellectuality represented by radical Jews (at least, as will be shown in this study) differed in a characteristic manner from that of their non-Jewish comrades. Against the criticism of Wistrich (1976) – that Marxism broke completely with the Judeo-Christian tradition, that revolutionary Jews expressly denied Judaism and that most of them were ignorant of it – it can be said that cultural traditions can be transmitted in several indirect, elusive and hardly discernible ways, and even, as Gershom Sholem (1971) proves, through denial. However, regarding Jewish intellectuality as conducive to radicalism, it must be mentioned that most of the members of the generation studied here had their roots in the Jewish proletarian milieu and, as young, were usually self-taught. Although unusually „intellectual” – i.e., with highly developed interests in ideology and politics – most of them were not intellectuals in the sense of class or profession. Moreover, at the end of their road, when they are more intellectual than ever, they are also more moderate than ever before.

Thus, the notion that sees the cultural impact of some traditional Jewish values as the sole or main explanation of Jewish radicalism is insufficient. However, if such an impact did not exist the phenomenon would undoubtedly not have been what it is.

The author must admit to a bias against psychological theories as often applied in this context. Cuddihy`s view represents an example of an ignorance of Jewish history, sweeping generalizations and over-simplifications. Moreover, his analysis smacks of prejudice. Feuer`s psychoanalytical theory of an Oedipus complex cannot account for those Jewish radicals who had excellent relations with their parents and those non-Jewish ones who did not. Wistrich’s (or Prager’s and Telushkin’s) approach seems to be highly ascriptive and, although individualistic, lacking in any attempt at sympathetic understanding. Moreover, it is doubtful whether the concept of self-hatred applied in this way really explains anything. It seems to ascribe psychological motives to acting indivuduals in a circular manner. Suppose that we say: „These persons were self-haters.” How do we know that? „Because they acted in this way.” Why did they act in this way? „Because they were self-haters.” The circular reasoning implied is typical for the ascription of motives in general. From overt action, one derives certain motives, which, in turn, are used as causal factors in explaining actions. Furthermore, the concept of self-hatred appears to be dependent on both the researcher`s own affirmative attitude towards the values said to be held in contempt by the objects of analysis, and on his or her knowledge of the ultimate outcome of the historical process being described. Also, it should be kept in mind that ethnic self-hatred cannot possibly be an either-or category, but rather a continuum ranging from self-affirmation to self-hatred. On the whole, it appears that the concept of self-hatred might be of some descriptive, but only a limited explanatory value. In general terms, although they might contain insightful observations, the psychological approaches tend to reduce complex social, cultural and political variables to individualistic psychological phenomena for which they cannot account.

Accounts attributing Jewish radicalism solely or mainly to the Jewish predicament (anti-Semitism, deprivation) do not suffice as explanation. If all or most of the Jews in certain countries and in certain periods were subjected to anti-Semitism and deprivation, why did they not all, or most, rebel? Suffering and misery in themselves are not sufficient causes for rebellion or radicalism.12 And if it was in the self-interest of Jews to join the revolution, why did most of them reject it? In the ghettos of Eastern Europe of which Valentin writes, radicalism was seen as a dangerous deviancy,13 and Moscow`s chief rabbi is reported to have said to Trotsky (whose original name was Bronstein) that „the Trotskys make the revolution and the Bronsteins pay the price.”14 If anti-Semitism, misery and the principal hostility of the right were the sole reason for Jewish leftist involvment, how could we account for the disproportionate number of Jews involved in the New Left in USA?15

On the other hand, accounts attributing Jewish radicalism to social predicament cannot be altogether dismissed. As this study will also show, anti-Semitism and misery have been among the most influential factors which produced radicals striving for Jewish and/or global emancipation. Thus, if applied in an exclusive manner, this group of accounts is apparently insufficient as explanation; however, they contain points of crucial importance that cannot be omitted.

Brym’s view of individual embedding in concrete social strata as decisive for becoming a Jewish radical of a particular color is undoubtedly tempting. However, it cannot account for several cases, in fact so many that they almost are typical, of brothers, sisters and peers who began from identical positions and yet ended up on opposite sides of the barricades.


The issue of radical Jews always forms a question of concrete people involved in the concrete, complex and changing circumstances of their time and society. Acting in these circumstances, they are empowered by the heritage of their past, by the problems of the present and by visions of the future. The present study will suggest that there exist no particular „Jewish radicalism” and, consequently, that a category of „Jewish radicals,” which it implies, is a chimera. Instead, it will be suggested that the question of radical Jews should be seen in the perspective of the general mechanisms of individual and collective becoming as functioning through and in the fabric of a specific, culturally encased social situation. Thus, it will be proposed that the issue of radical Jews, and of ethnopolitical generations, at least as exemplified by the generation of Polish-Jewish Communists, should be explained by (1) the combined impact of specific cultural heritage and social predicament; (2) the characteristic entanglement of conditions and non-coincidential contingencies, decisive in determining the initial individual choices; and (3) the reciprocative and consequential character of individual and collective formation, conducive to restricting the field of available, „obvious” options within the path along which the social and moral careers of the particular individuals that form a generation develop.

This is a perspective in which even the story of the generation of Jewish communists of Poland should be seen.

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