Caught in the middle

Jerry Z. Muller’s book is an enlightening survey of Jews in the modern world of economic systems.

New York Stock Exchange R370 (photo credit: BRENDAN McDERMID / REUTERS)
New York Stock Exchange R370
(photo credit: BRENDAN McDERMID / REUTERS)
Throughout the many years it took him to earn his degree this literature major studiously managed to avoid any university course even remotely touching upon economics.
Worse, whenever I stumble into reading an op-ed or an article in a magazine written by some practitioner of the Dismal Science, I invariably find myself in the position of the rabbi famously adjudicating the dispute.
(“You’re right! And you’re right! What, that’s crazy? Well, you’re right, too!”)
Thus it was a startling surprise to discover that Jerry Z. Muller’s “Capitalism and the Jews” was such a delightful read – even as I remained in the grip of the dithering rebbe.
(The case for capitalism? Yes! For communism? Yes! Socialism? Yes! Zionism? Yes! Internationalism? Yes!)
Muller is a professor of history at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, and author of such books as “The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Modern European Thought”. As evidenced by the 30 pages of notes to this slim volume, he is an assiduous scholar.
Yet for all that, Muller is a graceful writer, blessedly free of the toxic jargon of the social sciences (not a single “exogenous” – although he suffers from a peculiar tic of diction, namely his habitual use of the word “salient,” sometimes more than once on the same page). And based as it is on lectures and essays written over many years, “Capitalism and the Jews” exhibits occasional repetitions. But all of this is forgivable. The book is an exhilarating and enlightening survey of Jews in the modern world of economic systems.
Capitalism, Muller argues, has been good for the Jews – and vice versa. Muller reviews all of the classic theories explaining the association of Jews and capitalism. There’s relegation to financial activities in Christian societies that shunned the same and denied Jews land ownership and membership in the artisan trades; outsider status and international outlook; sobriety; a tradition of delayed gratification (save for the children, they should have a better future); a means of entry into the larger society; and many more.
Muller does not delve into the contribution of Judaism to Jewish economic thinking and practice, but he does note that “theirs was a religion oriented to continuous contact with texts: a culture of handling books, reading them, and reflecting on their messages. It was a culture of finding commonalities and distinctions in arguments, and of thinking in abstractions.”
But, of course, no single explanation suffices. Muller points out that another despised minority, the Quakers, also prospered in business, while Armenians by and large did not.
It is important to note that Jews invented neither capitalism nor communism, but were often accused of having done both, and were even charged with promoting both simultaneously for their own particular ends. Muller acknowledges that Jews were prominent among communists and socialists. (“International Jews... now at last this band of extraordinary personalities from the underworld of the great cities of Europe have gripped the Russian people by the hair of their heads and have become practically the undisputed masters of that enormous empire.”)
But despite Winston Churchill’s uncharacteristic fulmination, Muller argues convincingly that economic radicals were exceptions among the mass of Jews and indeed represented an inverted pyramid; in no nation did any more than a fraction of the Jewish population ever favor anti-capitalism over capitalism.
In any event, if Jews who prospered under capitalism found themselves subject to anti- Semitism, Jews who embraced the red banner fared even worse. Jews were notable among the post-war communist regimes in Russia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Poland, Ukraine and elsewhere, but everywhere, without exception, devout Jewish communists would ultimately suffer disgrace, imprisonment or execution.
Muller elucidates all of this sorry business with aplomb and illustrates his points with numerous references to many renowned political and economic theorists, from Marx and Engels to John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman (who observed that Jews “owe an enormous debt to free enterprise and competitive capitalism,” but “for at least the past century the Jews have been consistently opposed to capitalism and have done much on an ideological level to undermine it”).
I also appreciated learning of the views of Martin Luther, Jeremy Bentham and Francis Bacon on lending at interest, which they generally labeled usury. Muller is also very good on the Zionist thinker Moshe Leib Lilienblum, who argued that European nationalism would engender anti-Semitism from both capitalist and socialist fronts, and especially on Dov Ber Borochov, who argued early in the 20th century that the Jews’ role as economic middlemen in Europe would eventually lead to “expulsion, or worse.” Muller is also instructive on figures quite unknown to me, such as the German social scientist Werner Sombart, whose 1911 work “The Jews and Modern Capitalism” pioneered the theory that Jews were responsible for creating the modern marketplace, where competition ruled unchecked.
The only place where things get fuzzy is near the end, where Muller writes glowingly about the Central European theorist Ernest Gellner. (“By creating a new and direct relationship between individuals and the government, the rise of the modern state weakened the individual’s bonds to intermediate social units, such as the family, the guild, and the church. And by spurring social and geographical mobility, the market-based economy itself eroded traditional ties. The result was an emotional vacuum that was often filled by new forms of identification with the political community of the nation.”)
But maybe mine was merely the befuddlement of a slacker who never dared take an economics course. I suspect even those who have will profit greatly from Jerry Z. Muller’s effervescent "Capitalism and the Jews." •