One of my commenters recently pointed me at the work of Kevin McDonald, an academic who has studied the adaptive strategies of diaspora Jewry in great historical depth, largely drawing from Jewish historians as his sources.
I have yet to read his actual books, but I’ve found a great deal of review and discussion and analysis of them on the Web, and he makes some interesting cases. Through reading about his work, I’ve found a possible answer to a historical question that has troubled me for a couple of decades. That answer implies a terrible, bloody irony near the heart of the last few centuries of Jewish history.
The question is this: why have Jewish intellectuals invested so heavily in socialism and communism, a movement that has repaid that investment with oppression and massacre of Jews on a huge scale?
I noticed and wrote, years ago, that Jewish thinkers from Spinoza onward have been attracted to a style of political and philosophical analysis that could be described as messianic secular rationalism. That is: if you look at reform movements that are anti-religious or a-religious in character, but that are organized around some notion of justice founded in abstractions that are supposed to be universal to all cultures, you’ll usually find Jews heavily represented among their foundational thinkers. This pattern is part of what’s behind the trope common in anti-semitic literature that the Jews are “rootless cosmopolitans”.
As a relatively minor but interesting case historically close to me, consider Richard M. Stallman’s free-software movement. RMS is a secular Jew; I’ve noted before that Stallman’s thinking reads like a sort of Jewish meliorism crossed with New England transcendentalism a la Thoreau. RMS’s insistence on an absolute standard of morality completely and aggressively decoupled from any religious ideas is diagnostic of the sort of thing I mean.
As a contrasting example, consider the “classical liberal” secular reformism of John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and the framers of the U.S. Constitution. That tradition is simultaneously less interested in completely divorcing itself from religious ideas and less interested in questions of absolute morality. The emphasis is not on “how should we live?” but “how can we coexist despite having different agendas?”
Some of the key differences between RMS’s thinking and mine — thus, some of the differences between “free software” and “open source” tendencies in the reform movement we have both shaped — trace directly to the fact that Gentile classical liberalism is my background tradition in much the same way that Jewish secular messianic rationalism is his.
As a much more important recent case, Jews have played a central role in the socialist left ever since Marx, who was himself Jewish by genetic and intellectual heritage even though his parents converted to Lutheranism as an assimilation move. Ever since, secularized Ashkenazic Jews have provided the left with most of its intellectual firepower and a disproportionately large share of its footsoldiers.
And I have long wondered why this is. I used to think the main reason was simply that Jews are on average brighter than gentiles; thus, we can expect to find them disproproportionately represented in the leadership of any reform movement that doesn’t actively exclude them. But I was never completely satisfied with that explanation; it seemed true but insufficient.
Kevin McDonald agrees with that explanation, but proposes another one as well. He thinks that the behavior of diaspora Jewry expresses an evolutionary strategy in which it competes collectively as a largely endogamous ethno-tribal group against other ethno-tribal groups. McDonald believes that one of the tactics proceeding from this strategy is to sell Gentiles ideas that weaken the cohesion of their ethno-tribal and nation-state groupings.
That is, the best outcome for the Jews as a cluster of related genetic lines is that Jews maintain ethno-tribal identity, but everyone else loses theirs. Thus, I think McDonald would interpret Jewish intellectuals’ tendency to promote what I have called “messianic secular rationalism” as a move in reproductive competition!
It’s an audacious idea. The only fault I can find in it is that, if true, it’s not clear how Jews learn and transmit this tactic. Neither McDonald nor I believe there’s some cabal of Elders of Zion orchestrating the behavior, so how is it maintained without anyone consciously intending it? I have some ideas about this, centered around the observed fact that cultures often learn useful adaptations without any understanding why they’re adaptive; Jews not eating pork is a relevant example. But pursuing that inquiry would wander away from my main point, to which I shall now return.
First, I think McDonald’s proposal does in fact answer the question I opened this essay with. That is: Jewish intellectuals invested heavily in socialism precisely because it is a universalizing theory that actively aims to disrupt, deprecate, and destroy ethno-tribal bonds. This was good for the Jews as long as the Jews themselves remained a mainly exclusive, endogamous ethno-tribal group.
Second: the tragedy. If you’re part of a stubbornly exclusive/endogamous ethno-tribal group, and you successfully invent and sell the world a universalist ideology that considers ethno-tribal loyalties regressive and dangerous, sooner or later that “success” is going to come back around and bite you hard.
This is what happened to the Jews in the 20th century. Their most successful, infectious form of messianic social rationalism (e.g. Communism) massacred them in ton lots, then mutated into an irrationalist ethno-tribalism (Naziism) that massacred them in more ton lots, then Communism took a third whack at them after WWII under Stalin and made the survivors’ lives so miserable that most of them decamped to ethno-tribal Israel.
There are a few obvious lessons here. One: Some tactics don’t scale well. Another: Be careful what you wish others to believe, because you might succeed.