For nearly two hundred years, Jews have played a disproportionate role as leaders of the modern revolutionary movements in Europe and the West. To these socialist revolutionaries, the bourgeois freedom established by the French Revolution was only half-freedom. The universal Rights of Man had created a unity of mankind in the political realm, but had left the citizenry divided and unequal in civil society. Only a socialist revolution could make whole the defect in the human cosmos. By carrying the revolution to its conclusion, socialists would usher in a millennium and fulfill the messianic prophecies of the pre-Enlightenment religions that modern ideas had discredited. Through this revolution, the lost unity of mankind would be restored, social harmony would be re-established, paradise regained. It would be -- to employ the language of Lurianic Kabbalism -- a tikkun olam, a repair of the world.
If the revolution was a secular faith, its Moses was a deracinated Jew whose father had changed his name from Herschel to Heinrich, and converted to Christianity to advance his government career. The young Karl Marx grew into a brilliant but rancorous adult, consumed by hatred not only for the society that disdained him, but for the community that had raised him. Internalizing the worst anti-Semitic stereotypes, he incorporated them into his early revolutionary vision, identifying Jews as symbols of the society he wanted to overthrow: “The god of the Jews has been secularized and has become the god of this world,” he wrote in one of his early manuscripts. “Money is the jealous God of Israel, beside which no other God may stand.” In a catechism for revolutionaries he took on the voice of his people’s timeless persecutors: “What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, selfishness. What is the secular cult of the Jew? Haggling. What is his secular god? Money...Money is the alienated essence of man’s work and existence: this essence dominates him and he worships it.” Salvation for the Jews lay in the revolution that would destroy the foundations of the social order itself. For once the revolution succeeded in “destroying the empirical essence of Judaism,” Marx promised, “the Jew will become impossible, because his consciousness will no longer have an object.” The revolutionary equation was thus complete: “the social emancipation of Jewry is the emancipation of society from Judaism.”
For secular Jews, like Marx, the radical idea that the bourgeois revolution had somehow been incomplete carried irresistible appeal. The bourgeois bill of rights had emancipated Europe’s ghettoes, granting civil freedom to individuals, but refused to recognize the people itself which stubbornly rejected assimilation. As a result, even secularized Jews like Marx were looked on as members of an alien nation. To them, the socialist revolution promised a true restoration of their own humanity and general liberation -- a society freed from religious illusion and national division; a world made whole; a tikkun olam. Communism, as Marx put it, was “the riddle of humanity solved”-- as though the problem of human alienation and suffering was nothing more than an intellectual puzzle.
Anti-Semitism was an animating passion of the founders of socialism (Fourier and Proudhon, as well as Marx), but throughout the 19th Century its poisons emanated principally from the Right, while Jews found their defenders on the political Left. After 1914, the First World War and its barbarities shattered the expectations of civil progress and revived the passions of revolt. Out of the ashes of the cataclysm, two destructive radical movements emerged.
Fascism and Communism were both rooted in the messianic ambitions and gnostic illusions that the Enlightenment had unleashed; both invoked the salvationist claims of the socialist promise; both looked to a historical transcendence, proposing final solutions to what had been timeless problems of the human condition. Both set out to create their socialist futures by first destroying the bourgeois present, and erecting their utopias on its smoldering ruins. Both intended to restore the lost unity of mankind by first dividing humanity into opposing camps: the politically saved and the morally damned, the children of light and the carriers of darkness, Us and Them. Fascism proposed to build its utopia on the volk, the purity and solidarity of the tribe. International socialism proposed to build its utopia on class foundations -- the creation of a morally purified, proletarian ubermensch, the “new man” and “new woman.” The means of purification, for both messianisms, was political terror. “Proletarian coercion in all its forms, beginning with the firing squad,” explained the Bolshevik Bukharin, later a victim of his own prescription, “is...the way of fashioning the communist man out of the human material of the capitalist era.”
Revolutionary hope is a religious gnosticism. It is the belief in a world possessed by evil and an earthly redemption achieved through knowledge. The Left is impervious to its own catastrophes because the perception of catastrophe is the very premise of its faith. The religious foundation of its political beliefs is the idea of history as a fall from grace. If a socialist experiment proves to be corrupt, it has merely failed to escape the existing corruption. The Left is not about reforming particular institutions through a program of social reform. It proposes, instead, to rectify the general catastrophe of existence itself. Until the general redemption is achieved, the potential always exists for a particular lapse.
To the secular messianists of the radical Left, the world we know is a social illusion, mankind alienated from its “true self.” Likewise, to the religious gnostic, reality is a delusion of false consciousness. The religious revolutionary believes that humanity creates its own reality. There is no limit, therefore, to what humanity may become. Alienation and suffering can be ended by a revolution that restores humanity to its authentic being. Reactionary religion, by contrast, reconciles humanity to its unacceptable reality with a dream of divine intervention and other-worldly hope. It is the opium of the people, projecting humanity’s own power -- the power to redeem itself -- onto a supernatural being, God. The revolutionary faith rejects the illusion of divine grace and proposes itself as the messianic force. The revolutionary answer to the religious question is the demand to change the conditions that make religion necessary. The revolutionary prophet proclaims a liberation theology: "You shall be as gods, creating the conditions of your own redemption."
“Alienation” is the Marxist name for the catastrophe that has befallen human existence, for the fact that there are not merely particular injustices to be remedied by specific reforms, but that there is injustice in the very structure of mankind’s being in the world, that no mere reform can heal. Jews have a name for this catastrophe of existence, too, and it is the same name: Exile. In Marx’s Communist Manifesto the proletariat is identified as a people in exile like the Jews: “Proletarians have no country....Proletarians of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains.”
Excerpted from "The Religious Roots of Radicalism," by David Horowitz (1998).