Julius Carlebach
Karl Marx and the Radical Critique of Judaism

Sombart's essay could be seen as an attempt to restate the Marxian thesis in sociological terms. 'What Sombart seeks to provide are the historical and anthropological proofs to substantiate the Marxian claim that Judaism was 'the spirit of capitalism.' Methodologically he followed Weber—in fact, copied him—but he lacked the capacity to formulate theoretical principles and the distance from his subject to explain those aspects of Jewish history which went against his basic suppositions. In the first part of his book, he set out to show the dominant influence of Jews in the development of modern capitalism in Europe: 'Israel passes over Europe like the sun: at its corning, new life bursts forth; at its going all falls into decay.' In Sombart's view, the importance of the Jews for the economic development of Europe was twofold: 'they influenced the outward form of capitalism [and] gave expression to its inward spirit.' Like Marx, he regarded the colonisation of America as a direct transfer of 'the Jewish spirit' to the new world, Jews 'swarmed' there as soon as settlement began and filled it 'to the brim with the Jewish spirit,' so that Americanism is nothing other than 'the Jewish spirit distilled.' Like Roscher, Sombart claimed that Jews contributed, indeed invented, important instruments of finance, e.g. securities, which made it possible to progress from personal to impersonal moneylending. Sombart strongly disagreed with Weber about the economic role of the Jew. 'Not his "usury" differentiated [the Jew] from the Christian, not that he sought gain, not that he amassed wealth; only that he did all this openly, not thinking it wrong, that he scrupulously and mercilessly looked after his business interests.' The difference between Sombart and Weber then was that Weber regarded the Jewish pariah status as a product of the Jews' own in-group/out-group ethic, whereas Sombart inclined to the view that pariah status was imposed on the Jew by tradition-bound Christian society. The Jew therefore felt free to reject accepted Christian ethical standards which regulated commercial life and to adopt instead the dominance of market factors to order his business. He thus became the innovator par excellence in a conformist environment. The contrast was not between Christian honesty and Jewish legality, but between Christian traditional ethic and 'capitalistic spirit.' The Jews thus disregarded barriers between industries, states and prevailing codes of etiquette, introduced modern advertising, founded the cheap press and created demands for goods. They introduced new business methods such as marketing cheap goods, accepting the idea of small profits with large turnovers, gimmick selling and credit buying. They introduced waste-product trades, the 'general store' and payment by instalments. In short, the Jew was 'modern' and created modern commercial practices. Sombart dismissed the question of Jews' disabilities and their persecution because 'they were of no moment whatever for the economic growth of Jewry.' Nor did he recognise that the problems created by legal restrictions on Jews did not affect so much their economic growth (which was in any event always distorted by the emergence of a small number of exceptionally wealthy families) as their economic structure which, by concentrating them in commerce and finance, misled him (and many others) into regarding this enforced occupational structure as a racial characteristic. Like Bauer and Marx, Sombart argued that the legally disadvantaged Jew compensated for his inferior position by acquiring wealth: the Jews 'became lords of money and through it lords of the world.'

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.