Dreams of Utopia

On the inter-war Jewish choice between Zionism and Communism


Gershom Scholem and Walter Benjamin, two great Jewish intellectuals of the early twentieth century and lifelong friends, took opposing sides on one of the great Jewish debates of modernity: was it possible to create a perfect community in an imperfect world, or did the world have to be changed first?

Scholem believed in the utopian collective—a partial redemption in the here and now—while Benjamin saw any solution other than global revolution as usurping the prerogative of the Messiah. In 1923, Scholem emigrated to Palestine to help build a utopian community. A series of letters between the two men, covering religion, politics, Marx and Kafka, illustrate the passion of the debate between Communism and Zionism, the two philosophical positions warring for the heart of the interwar, vulnerably assimilated, European Jew.

At the heart of their discussion lies the failure of the Enlightenment to assimilate Europe’s Jewish population. France,the home of the Enlightenment and the Revolution, had been rocked by the Dreyfus affair, and the full extent of Jewish vulnerability was exposed and felt everywhere. Scholem, a scholar of Jewish mysticism, responded to this failure by turning to theology, attempting to root utopia in the revival of the mystical tradition. Benjamin, on the other hand, rejected Zionism and progressive politics, believing that a superior, Communist, universality could emerge from the Jewish position in Europe.

Neither man was typical of their political tribe. Scholem’s ‘Cultural Zionism’ placed him apart from mainstream Zionists, who wanted to found a powerful Jewish nation state excluding the Arab population of Palestine. In a letter to Benjamin reporting on the 1931 Zionist Congress, Scholem describes his Zionism as a ‘religious-mystical quest for a regeneration of Judaism.’ He also warns of parallels between the attacks upon him—a ‘deracinated intellectual’—by the mainstream Zionists who deplored his ‘Diaspora mentality’ and those attacks upon Jewish intellectuals by the German far-right.

He rejected a future for the Jews that was not based upon reviving an authentic experience carried by the fundamental texts of Judaism. Underpinning his utopian collective was this command from Exodus: ‘You shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites’. Not only did it dissolve the distinction between priest and non-priest, unifying the sacred with the profane, but it made each person equal. For Scholem, this particular type of Zionism represented the fulfillment of Jewish theology. Even before he emigrated to Palestine, he argued, in his 1918 text ‘On the Bolshevik Revolution’, that there could not be a revolution for the Jews, as this would be tantamount to building the messianic kingdom without the Torah. Founding a Jewish collective in Palestine along these lines should synthesise theory and practice. In 1933, when Benjamin contemplated emigrating to Palestine, Scholem warned him that only if he were able to ‘feel completely at one with this land and the cause of Judaism’ would his emigration to Jerusalem be a success. For Benjamin however, Judaism, as the experience of marginality and the failure of assimilation, denoted the impossibility of feeling completely at one with anything, including Judaism itself. The contra- dictions between theory and practice, the individual and community, politics and theology, were, for Benjamin, testament to the unredeemed state of the world and the necessity of Revolution. Rather than Palestine in 1933 he chose Paris, embracing the very experience of marginality and exile that had prompted Scholem to emigrate.

Was it possible to create a perfect community in an imperfect world, or did the world have to be changed first?

In Benjamin’s work, after his Marxist turn in the mid 1920s, there could be no immediate return to the teachings of Torah. His figure of the ‘angel of history’ represents a critique of Scholem’s understanding of Judaism, particu- larly, his notion that ‘all that befalls the world is only an expression of this primal and fundamental galut (exile)’ Of the angel, Benjamin writes: ‘his face is turned towards the past.Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.’ Communism, he believed, had the power to raise the dead through the force accumulated through past political action (even when that action had failed):

It is not in the form of the spoils that fall to the victor that [refined and spiritual things] make their presence felt in the class struggle.They manifest themselves in this struggle [of the oppressed] as courage, humour and fortitude.They have retroactive force and will constantly call into question every victory past and present of the rulers. As flowers turn toward the sun, by dint of a secret heliotropism the past strives to turn toward the sun which is rising in the sky of history.

With his commitment to political action, Benjamin takes his place in a canon of Jewish Messianism that asserts humanity’s role in achieving redemption. He translates this into Marxist terms:

Not man, or men but the struggling oppressed class itself is the depository of historical knowledge. In Marx it appears as the last enslaved class, the avenger that completes the task of liberation in the name of generations of the downtrodden.

Benjamin’s ‘Jewish interpretation’ of Marx enacts a short-circuit between partiality (the agent of redemption is the working class not humanity as a whole) and a stronger universality (the inclusion not only of present and future generations among the redeemed but also the past generations of the downtrodden).

Both Benjamin and Scholem take as their starting point the inauthenticity and vulnerability of assimilated European Jews, but for Benjamin, the response of Zionism, even the variety advocated by Scholem, was a betrayal of what was essential to Judaism. The sharpest description of this Zionist tendency comes from Benjamin’s friend Ernst Bloch: Zionism was a denial of the Jews’ ‘power of being chosen as the agents of redemption’ and entailed the assimilation of Jews, previously a internationalist, group, into the system of balkanised nation states. Even in Scholem’s ‘cultural Zionism’, the attempt to found healthy socialist communities of the previously excluded represented a refusal of the link between Jewish marginality and universality in favour of partiality and fixed national identity in which all contradictions were resolved.

For Benjamin, Judaism denoted the impossibility of feeling completely at one with anything, including Judaism itself

Both Benjamin and Scholem’s politics were defeated. Scholem’s anarchic cultural Zionism was marginalised by mainstream Zionism, which adopted the reactionary policy towards the Arabs that he always feared, and created Israel as a nation state like all others. Benjamin killed himself fleeing the Nazis, who, in turn, extinguished the possibilities of European Jewish Communism. However, there remains something to salvage politically from Benjamin’s rejection of Zionism: how the refusal of fixed identities and the easy resolution of contradictions cannot be undertaken in the name of a complacent liberal cosmopolitanism, but instead always carry a link between marginality and the universal. The contemporary French philosopher Alain Badiou’s link of foreignness to universality in the absolute defence of immigrants repeats this:‘let foreigners teach us at least to become foreign to ourselves, to project ourselves sufficiently out of ourselves to no longer be captive to this long Western and white history that has come to an end, and from which nothing more can be expected than sterility and war’.

Tom Gann is a political activist and former Labour Parliamentary Candidate. He blogs on politics as part of the Labour Partisan collective at labourpartisan.blogspot.com

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