Modernity and the Jews in Western Social Thought

Modernity and the Jews in Western Social Thought

by Chad Alan Goldberg


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In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, prominent social thinkers in France, Germany, and the United States sought to understand the modern world taking shape around them. Although they worked in different national traditions and emphasized different features of modern society, they repeatedly invoked Jews as a touchstone for defining modernity and national identity in a context of rapid social change.

In Modernity and the Jews in Western Social Thought, Chad Alan Goldberg brings us a major new study of Western social thought through the lens of Jews and Judaism. In France, where antisemites decried the French Revolution as the “Jewish Revolution,” Émile Durkheim challenged depictions of Jews as agents of revolutionary subversion or counterrevolutionary reaction. When German thinkers such as Karl Marx, Georg Simmel, Werner Sombart, and Max Weber debated the relationship of the Jews to modern industrial capitalism, they reproduced, in secularized form, cultural assumptions derived from Christian theology. In the United States, William Thomas, Robert Park, and their students conceived the modern city and its new modes of social organization in part by reference to the Jewish immigrants concentrating there. In all three countries, social thinkers invoked real or purported differences between Jews and gentiles to elucidate key dualisms of modern social thought. The Jews thus became an intermediary through which social thinkers discerned in a roundabout fashion the nature, problems, and trajectory of their own wider societies. Goldberg rounds out his fascinating study by proposing a novel explanation for why Jews were such an important cultural reference point. He suggests a rethinking of previous scholarship on Orientalism, Occidentalism, and European perceptions of America, arguing that history extends into the present, with the Jews—and now the Jewish state—continuing to serve as an intermediary for self-reflection in the twenty-first century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226460550
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/21/2017
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Chad Alan Goldberg is professor of sociology and affiliated with the Center for German and European Studies, the George L. Mosse/Laurence A. Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies, and the George L. Mosse Program in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of Citizens and Paupers: Relief, Rights, and Race, from the Freedmen’s Bureau to Workfare, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Modernity and the Jews in Western Social Thought

By Chad Alan Goldberg

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-46055-0



This book compares the portrayal, symbolism, and meaning of the Jews and Judaism in French, German, and American social thought from the late nineteenth century through the early decades of the twentieth century. My primary focus is not on the role of Jews as producers of social thought but rather on Jews as objects of social thought. During this time period, the Jews served as a major point of orientation and reference in debates about what it meant to be modern and what it meant to be French, German, or American. To the social thinkers I discuss in subsequent chapters, modernity referred to a set of processes that swept away older historical arrangements to create a new and different social order. These processes were uneven, partial, incomplete, and varied from one place to another in timing and sequence, but they generally included the rise of the nation-state, the spread of democratic and bureaucratic forms of authority, the growth of modern industrial capitalism, secularization, urbanization, and the contact and collision of different peoples and cultures as a result of imperialism, colonialism, and migration. Because many scholars believed that these processes had thrown their societies into crisis, they devoted considerable attention to the possibilities for reconstructing older forms of community or constructing new forms of community under new social conditions. From these concerns sprang their interest in the Jews. The Jews became an intermediary through whom European and American social thinkers discerned in a roundabout fashion the nature, problems, and trajectory of their own societies.

While portrayals of Jews served this purpose in a wide range of social-scientific, humanistic, and literary texts, I concentrate on references to Jews in sociology. This focus is motivated by several considerations. To begin with, sociology has contributed to and comprises an important part of European and American social thought more generally. During the discipline's classical period in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when its fundamental ideas first took shape, the chief task that sociology set for itself and which was its raison d'être was to interpret and explain the modern world of which sociology itself was a product. Consequently, the symbolic function of the Jews as an intermediary for self-reflection was especially visible in the new discipline at this time. Moreover, the interpretations of modernity that the classical sociologists produced were widely diffused and at times consequential despite resistance to the institutionalization and legitimacy of their discipline. They often considered public influence part of their calling, and they had the means to disseminate their ideas by virtue of their relationships to the state, their participation in the public lecture circuit, or support from private foundations. In France, where the Catholic Church had long been responsible for education, Émile Durkheim's equating of God and society implied that sociologists and public school teachers would assume the roles formerly filled by theologians and priests. From the Sorbonne, he exercised great authority and influence within the university and the French education system overall. Urging his colleagues to advise and educate the masses by means of books, lectures, and popular education, Durkheim declared that "our function is to help our contemporaries to understand themselves." In Germany, university professors served as the spokesmen of the country's educated middle class on cultural questions. From this position, they worked to define "the [German] nation and, through it, the [German] state ... as creatures and as agents" of the educated elite's cultural ideals. Although sociologists occupied a heterodox position in the German academic field, their mandarin status enabled them to reach a substantial audience. The social thinker Werner Sombart, for instance, became a popular public speaker, comparable to the media stars and celebrities of today. Even in the United States, where intellectuals enjoyed less prestige, sociologists produced studies commissioned by large and influential foundations that directly addressed important public debates about urbanization and immigration. In all three countries, the classical sociologists authorized and promoted visions of the social world — and the place of the Jews within it — that sometimes contributed to producing the reality of that world. This theory effect, as the contemporary sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has called it, was especially likely when the visions that sociologists promoted lent scientific credibility to the aims and ideas of dominant groups. When intellectuals "want to act against the tendencies immanent in society," Bourdieu noted, "they are powerless; but when they act for the worst they are very effective, as they offer an expression and legitimation for society's dark and shameful impulses." To their credit, many of the social thinkers examined in this study resisted the dark and shameful impulses of antisemitism and nativism, but the complicity of others like Sombart in Germany or Edward Ross in the United States had devastating consequences.

Sociology's Jewish Question

Historians and philosophers have investigated the symbolic function of the Jews as an intermediary for self-reflection in a variety of contexts, and this study builds upon their seminal contributions. Ronald Schechter found that French writers and political actors took a pronounced interest in Jews between 1715 and 1815 because the Jews helped them to conceptualize and articulate the Enlightenment idea of human perfectibility: "If the most recalcitrant, obstinate people could improve," they reasoned, "then all peoples could improve." Later in the nineteenth century, as Lisa Moses Leff showed, the presence of Jews among French liberals, Saint-Simonian socialists, and anticlerical republicans, as well as the support of these political factions for Jewish rights, enabled them to signify their tolerance, moral standing, and universalism in opposition to the Catholic right. Phoebe Maltz Bovy showed how intermarriage between French Jews and gentiles came to represent an affirmation of the Revolution's ideals, including republican universalism, national fraternity, and the elimination of hereditary social divisions. Likewise, Jonathan Hess found that the German reading public took a strong interest in Jews from the late 1770s to 1806 because "intellectuals concerned with imagining new forms of political community in Germany" based on secular, rational, and universal principles saw in Judaism "the perfect antithesis to the norms of the modern world," namely, "a clannish and coercive form of legalism irreconcilable with the Enlightenment's insistence on individual autonomy, freedom of conscience and the very power of reason itself." According to Yirmiyahu Yovel, the Jews continued to attract the interest of later German thinkers like Hegel and Nietzsche because they "provided Europeans with a mirror ... in which to see a reflection of their own identity problems. The 'Jewish problem' was ... a reflection of Europe's own problem with itself, of how, in an age of rapid transformation, Europeans were understanding their own identity, future, and meaning of life." Similarly, Eric Goldstein found that in the United States during the Progressive era and interwar years, the ambivalent racial image of the Jew, at once similar to and different from native-born whites, subverted the color line through which white Americans stabilized their self-image and derived a sense of order, confidence, and superiority. Until native-born whites "could define the Jew and the forces of modernization he represented, they could not clearly define themselves." Vastly expanding the scope of these findings, David Nirenberg has argued that gentiles have repeatedly invoked Judaism in a wide variety of cultures from antiquity to the present to "make sense of and criticize their world." He concluded that anti-Judaism is "one of the basic tools" with which "the vast edifices of Western thought" were constructed.

Bringing French, German, and American social thought together in a single frame of reference, I extend the insights of this scholarship to classical sociological theory and the history of sociology. To be sure, scholarly attention to the treatment of Jews and Judaism within sociology is not new. There have been important studies of the Jewish backgrounds and contexts of Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Georg Simmel; Max Weber's ideas about Judaism and Jews; the connections that Marx, Simmel, Weber, and Sombart postulated between Jews and modern capitalism; the production of social-scientific knowledge about Jews and its use in political debates over Jewish assimilation; the relationship between sociology and antisemitism; and the historical sociology of Jews and their relations to gentiles. My own study is deeply indebted to these contributions, but they all have limitations that I seek to move beyond. Many of the studies are relatively narrow in scope, focusing on a single author, a single country, or the association of Jews with a single aspect of modern society such as capitalism. Others concentrate on the self-understanding of Jewish intellectuals, or even more narrowly on Jewish social scientists who made Jewish life the main focus of their work, thereby ignoring the important contributions that gentiles made to sociological discourse about the Jews. Those studies that emphasize anti-Judaism or antisemitism neglect positive depictions of Jews, and the sociology of Jewry continues to draw upon ideas from classical sociology without investigating their production or providing a reflexive analysis of its own history. Perhaps in part because of such limitations, these studies have yet to alter or inform prevailing accounts of the origins of sociology as a discipline. In these accounts, sociology appears as a response to the internal transformation of European societies or to colonial encounters with non-European others, but there is little attention in either version to how ideas about the Jews — a people in Europe yet often viewed as foreign to it — helped classical sociologists to construct their understanding of modernity.

Robert Nisbet argued that "the fundamental ideas of European sociology" were "best understood as responses to the problem of order created at the beginning of the nineteenth century by the collapse of the old regime" under the impact of the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. Although Nisbet was primarily an interpreter and not a historian of classical sociology, his thesis exemplifies conventional accounts of the discipline's emergence that trace it to social changes within European societies. For this reason, it merits closer consideration. Nisbet's thesis is insightful, but it remains inadequate in several respects. As I show in a subsequent chapter, it disregards the relationship of American sociology to equally profound changes that transformed the United States. Moreover, within the European context, Nisbet neglected the tendency of European social thinkers to link Jews discursively to the two revolutions. The French Revolution initiated the emancipation of the Jews in Europe and was therefore inseparable from Europe's Jewish question; it stimulated debates about the incorporation of Jews into the political community of citizens, much as the Industrial Revolution brought renewed attention to the role of Jews in bourgeois or civil society. Whether Jews were portrayed as agents and beneficiaries of Europe's internal transformations or as a reactionary force obstructing social progress, they loomed large in European discussions of modernization. As I show in later chapters, classical sociologists in France and Germany sometimes challenged this tendency but often contributed to it themselves. Jews were linked in this way to events that Nisbet and others consider the foundation of sociology. This is a major reason for this study's focus on Jews rather than the many other groups that sociologists also discussed.

In more recent years, revisionist scholarship on the history of sociology has faulted conventional accounts for another shortcoming: their inattention to Western colonialism. Seeking to rectify this oversight, revisionist accounts trace the emergence of sociology not to Europe's self-transformation but to European encounters with the non-European world. As R. W. Connell put it in an early version of this critique: "The enormous spectrum of human history that the sociologists took as their domain was organized by a central idea: difference between the civilization of the metropole and an Other whose main feature was its primitiveness." Directing attention to the relation between the metropole and its colonies has produced new insights, yet this perspective risks losing sight of comparable relations of power, knowledge, and cultural domination within the metropole. In particular, it neglects the role of Jews in Europe and America as an internal other. To be sure, this role can partly be understood within the conceptual framework that revisionist scholarship provides. As past studies have shown, Jews were often deemed an Oriental presence in Europe. In Germany, for instance, philosophers like Immanuel Kant referred to Jews as "the Palestinians living among us." This sort of characterization enabled antisemites to justify discrimination against Jews by reference to European colonial policies, as when the French writer and political theorist Charles Maurras declared in 1899 that an inferior civil and legal status for Jews in his country would be no different from "the system we apply without worrying, and very reasonably, to our colonial subjects." However, it would be a mistake to treat depictions of Jews in Western social thought as merely another expression of Orientalism because European and American social thinkers also associated Jews with various aspects of the modern West. As I show implicitly in chapters 2, 3, and 4 — and argue explicitly in chapter 5 — the ambiguous image of the Jew played a distinctive role in the construction of Western social thought that sometimes resembled but at other times differed from representations of colonial subjects. My focus on Jews rather than other groups helps to clarify this role.

This study draws on Bourdieu to move beyond the weaknesses of both conventional and revisionist accounts of the origins of sociology. Bourdieu called for the historicization of inherited categories of thought, concepts, and principles of classification in order to emancipate ourselves from a past that is forgotten and yet continues unconsciously to shape contemporary thought and practice. He described this approach as a "reflexive history that takes itself as its own object," and he used the term historical anamnesis to refer to its emancipatory aim. "To avoid being puppets of the past," he wrote, "we must reappropriate the past for ourselves. ... The work of anamnesis of the historical unconscious is the major instrument for gaining mastery of history, and therefore of the present that is an extension of history." What might this work of historical anamnesis look like? Invoking Durkheim's argument that our basic categories of understanding are neither innate nor a product of individual experience but instead have a social origin, Bourdieu suggested that that one might explain in a similar manner the major dualisms that structure discourse about the social world. For instance, "we could show in this way that the historical opposition between France and Germany has served as a basis (unconscious and repressed) for a certain number of grand alternatives (for example culture versus civilization), and that it is necessary to de-fetishize, or what comes to the same thing, denaturalize." As I show in chapter 3, the antinomy between culture and civilization was also based upon the historical opposition between Deutschtum and Judentum. The broader point that I wish to make here, and which I elaborate in chapter 5, is that European and American social thinkers contrasted Jews and gentiles in a variety of ways and consciously invoked these differences to elucidate many of the dualisms that characterize modern social thought. What remained unconscious to them was the extent to which their ideas about the Jews, while seeming only to reflect an objective reality, were inherited from the past and helped to organize their perception of reality. It is this hidden influence that the present study aims to recover.


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Table of Contents


1 Introduction,
2 The French Tradition: 1789 and the Jews,
3 The German Tradition: Capitalism and the Jews,
4 The American Tradition: The City and the Jews,
5 Conclusions,

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