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The words socialism and socialist were first used about the year 1830 but the origin of the ideas which led to the establishment of the modern labor movement goes back to the time of the French Revolution. For a variety of reasons Jews were attracted to socialism as it developed in Western Europe. Some regarded it as the building of a “just society” based on the teachings of the Bible and the Prophets, while others were attracted by its revolutionary nature. Thus, while some Jews saw socialism as a reply to antisemitism, there were also Jews who saw in it a way of getting rid of their Jewish heritage and serving the cause of the “Brotherhood of Man.” Socialism was particularly attractive for Jews anxious to leave the ghetto behind them and who, disappointed with the slow progress of 19th-century liberalism, were keen to embrace a new universal faith.


The forerunners of modern socialism were two Frenchmen, Count Henry Claude de Rouvroy de Saint-Simon (1760–1825; see Saint-Simonism) and Charles Fourier (1772–1837). Saint-Simon was impressed by Jewish messianic ideals and, referring to the persecution of the Jews, wrote that he looked forward to the time when all men would be brothers. Two of his followers, Barthélemy Prosper Enfantin (1796–1864) and Armand Bazard (1791–1832), considered the emancipation of the Jews as being one of the preconditions for the liberation of humanity. They believed that Jewish monotheism foreshadowed the approaching unity of mankind and their supporters included many French Jews, among them the poet Léon Halévy, the bankers Émile and Isaac Péreire, and the financier Olinde Rodrigues (1794–1851). On the other hand, Charles Fourier identified Jews with capitalism and opposed their emancipation on the grounds that they were “parasites, merchants, usurers.” Nevertheless, in his last writings he argued that the Jews should be helped to escape from persecution in Europe by returning to Palestine and once more become a recognized nation with their own king, their own flag, their own consuls, and their own currency. A number of Fourier’s followers were Jews who rejected their master’s antisemitism. Thus Alexander Weil wrote in 1845 that it was unfair to blame one section of the population for what he regarded as the iniquities of Catholicism and capitalism. He also described the serious condition of the Jews in Eastern Europe, in order to draw the attention of the public to their plight. Similarly, Jean Czynsky, a Polish refugee of Jewish origin, wrote that freedom for Poland and the emancipation of Polish Jews were concepts for which all socialists must strive.

Great Britain

The early development of socialism in Britain at the beginning of the 19th century had little to do with the Jews, who numbered only 20,000 in the country. Nevertheless, Robert Owen (1771–1858), “the father of British socialism,” actively campaigned for equality for the Jews and in 1830 submitted a petition to the House of Commons urging the abolition of religious disabilities. His example was followed by a number of leaders of the Chartist movement. Jews first became prominent in British socialism in the latter half of the 19th century and in May 1876 the Aguddat ha-So?yalistim ha-Ivrim was formed in London, its founders including A.S. Liebermann and Lazar Goldenberg. German radical groups were also active in London and largely influenced the ideology of Jewish socialists in Britain. They kept in contact with the Russian revolutionary Peter Lavrov (1823–1900), who published the socialist organ, Vpered, in London. Toward the end of the 19th century an increasingly large number of Russian Jews became active in British socialism. Theodor Rothstein was a leader of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation, founded by H.M. Hyndman in 1884. Rothstein, who was shocked by an antisemitic outburst by Hyndman, later played an important part at the congress of the Russian Social Democratic Party in London in 1907, and after the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917 was their unofficial representative in London. Later he helped found the British Communist Party, in which his son Andrew Rothstein was a prominent figure for many years. He was anti-Zionist, as were Joe Finberg, and Boris and Zelda Kahn, all refugees from Russia who played a major part in the British socialist movement. An outstanding figure of the British socialist movement was Eleanor Marx-Aveling (1855–1898), Karl Marx’s youngest daughter, who felt a close affinity with the Jewish people and affirmed that “my happiest moments are when I am in the East End of London amid Jewish workpeople.”


In Germany, many of the pioneers of socialism were Jewish. Among them was Moses Hess, whose study Die Philosophic der Tat (“The Philosophy of Action”), linked the ideas of the German philosophical school with the concept of historical materialism on which communism was based. Hess largely influenced the thinking of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels but differed from them in that his brand of socialism was based upon ethical concepts. The course of socialism in Germany, however, was dominated not by Hess but by Marx and Ferdinand Lassalle, the former as the founder of the school of economic materialism and the latter as the father of German Social Democracy. But while Marx was the great theoretician who set out to revolutionize international politics, Lassalle was the political strategist who brought socialism into German political life. Both showed a marked hostility to Judaism. On the other hand, Marx’s non-Jewish colleague Friedrich Engels, who at first equated Jews with capitalists, later took a stand against antisemitism which he described as the weapon of the German governing class.

The First International

A number of Jews became prominent during the 19th century in the International Working Men’s Association, formed in 1864 by Marx and Engels, which became known as the First International. Among them were several French Jews, including E.E. Fribourg, an opponent of Marx, who was a disciple of the non-Jewish anarchist writer Pierre Proudhon (1809–1865). Fribourg advocated membership in the association only to people engaged in physical work, a move against Marx, whereas Lazare Lévy, another leading member of the French section of the First International, was a strong supporter of Karl Marx. Jews were also prominent in the workers’ uprising in the Paris Commune in March 1871, one of the leaders being Léo Frankel.

The Second International

The Second International set up at the Paris Congress of 1889 was largely dominated by German socialists, whose delegates represented a strong socialist party in effective control of the trade unions. They included August Bebel, William Liebknecht, Clara Zetkin, and Eduard Bernstein, the son of a Jewish worker, who had a profound influence on the development of socialism in Germany and elsewhere. Bernstein combined Marxist ideology with British pragmatism in a concept which became known as “Revisionism.” He considered assimilation the best solution to the Jewish problem but Jewish suffering in World War I made him a supporter of Jewish settlement in Palestine and of Po’alei Zion. His non-Jewish colleague August Bebel was also sympathetic to the Jewish cause, describing antisemitism as “socialism of the fools,” and, while there were antisemites among the German socialists, the party was committed to fight against discrimination. By 1912 there were 12 Jews among the 100 Social Democrats in the German Parliament. Many other Jews were prominent in the party, the majority of them favoring assimilation, especially after Karl Kautsky’s book, Race and Judaism, was published in 1914. Most members of the Social Democratic Party were hostile to Zionism, as was the party organ Die Neue Zeit, but the Revisionists showed understanding of the labor Zionist cause and their newspaper Sozialistische Monatshefte, edited by Joseph Bloch, was pro-Zionist. In Austria, many prominent figures in the Socialist Party were Jews, among them Victor Adler, Friedrich Adler, Otto Bauer, Max Adler, Hugo Breitner, and William Ellenbogen. They all supported assimilation and opposed Jewish national aspirations. In particular, Otto Bauer’s work Die Nationalitaetenfrage und die Sozialdemokratie (1907), which denied that the Jews were a separate nationality, had considerable influence in socialist circles. On the whole, Jewish socialists in Austria avoided discussion of the Jewish question and were hostile to Zionism, but a notable exception was Julius Braunthal, who supported the labor Zionist movement.


During World War I several Jewish socialists were among the most outspoken critics of the war, among them Rosa Luxemburg and Hugo Haase in Germany, Friedrich Adler in Austria, Julius Martov and Lev (Leon) Trotsky from Russia, and Angelica Balabanov in Italy. In the chaotic conditions after World War I, Jewish socialists held top cabinet posts in socialist administrations in Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Russia. Thus Haase and O. Landsberg joined the German provisional government following the collapse of imperial Germany, Hugo Preuss became minister of the interior in the Weimar Republic, Paul Hirsch (1868–1938) was prime minister of Prussia, Kurt Rosenfeld was Prussian minister of justice, and Kurt Eisner was prime minister of “Soviet” Bavaria. In Austria, Victor Adler, Otto Bauer – who became foreign minister – and Friedrich Adler all played a major part in the Austrian revolution of 1918, and following the Hungarian revolution of 1919 Bela Kun became dictator in a “Soviet” Hungarian government containing 14 Jewish commissars. In Russia, many Jews held senior posts in the first Bolshevik administration and the Communist Party (see Communism; Russia).

Between 1918 and 1939 individual Jewish socialists held prominent positions in several European countries, but their importance tended to be exaggerated by antisemites. Thus in Germany, the Nazis represented the few Jewish socialists as having far greater influence than they actually had. In Austria, Otto Bauer was foreign minister from 1919 to 1920, Oscar Pollak was editor of the party organ Arbeiter-Zeitung, and Matilda Pollak was leader of the Social Democratic women. Léon Blum was prime minister of France and Jules Moch was minister of public works. In Czechoslovakia Ludwig Czech was minister of social welfare, while in Holland Saloman Rodrigues de Miranda was minister of housing, and in Britain Emanuel Shinwell was secretary of mines. The socialist movement in continental Europe gradually weakened as the pace of the Nazi advance increased.

After the outbreak of World War II, socialist parties survived only in Britain, Sweden, and Switzerland. Most of the socialist refugees fled to England, where the British Labor Party took the initiative in convening regular meetings to discuss matters of common concern. Among them were several Jewish socialists, including Oscar Pollak and Karl Czernitz from Austria and Claudio Treves from Italy.

Post-World War II

After World War II, Jews continued to be prominent in the socialist movements of France and Great Britain. In France, Léon Blum, Jules Moch, Pierre Mendes-France, and Daniel Mayer emerged as leading French socialists and all held posts in French coalition governments. All four were active in Jewish affairs and supporters of the State of Israel. In Britain, Jewish participation in the Labor movement considerably increased in the postwar years. There were four Jewish cabinet ministers in the Labor government of 1945–51: Emanuel Shinwell, Harry Nathan, Lewis Silkin, and George Strauss, and the Labor government of 1964–70 at various times included Jews in senior or junior offices, among them Austen Albu (1903–1994), John Diamond, Harold Lever, Reginald Freeson (1926– ), Baroness Serota, Edmund Dell (1921–1999), and John Silkin. In addition, Harold Laski was chairman of the Labor Party from 1945 to 1946, Emanuel Shinwell was chairman of the Parliamentary Labor Party and Ian Mikardo (1908–1993), Frank Allaun (1913–2002), and Sydney Silverman were members of the Labor Party national executive. One particularly noticeable feature of the growth of Jewish participation in the Labor movement was the sharp increase in the number of Jewish Labor members of Parliament, from four in 1935 to 26 in 1945, around 36 in 1966, and 30 in 1970. Many of the Jews prominent in the Labor Party were associated with the British Po’alei Zion and a Zionist group formed in 1956 called Labor Friends of Israel.

In the British Commonwealth, too, Jews have played an increasingly important part in socialist politics. In Canada a number of Jews were actively associated with the leadership of the socialist New Democratic Party formed in 1961. The most prominent of them was David Lewis – leader of the parliamentary party. Other Jewish MPs representing the NDP were Max Saltsman (Toronto) and David Orlikow (Winnipeg). In Manitoba, five Jews were members of the Provincial Legislature: Saul Cherniak, C. Gonick, Sidney Green, Saul Miller, and Sidney Spivak. In British Columbia, too, a number of Jews were prominent in the party, but not in Montreal where the NDP was, generally, a weak body. While the Canadian Labor Zionist movement was not affiliated to the party, there was close cooperation in a number of provinces. Leading personalities of the NDP, which is a member of the Socialist International, visited Israel and showed a friendly attitude to its socialist party. The Canadian Congress, formed in 1956, had a close association both with the Histadrut in Israel and local Jewish labor bodies. In Australia, too, Jews played an increasingly active part in socialist politics. Sidney Einfeld and Senator Sam Cohen were Labor Party parliamentarians for a number of years. In 1969, three Jewish socialist candidates were elected to the Australian House of Representatives: Joe Berison (Perth), Moses Cass (Melbourne), and Barry Cohen (Robertson Constituency – near Sydney). In 2005, the only Jewish member of the Australian Parliament was the Labor MP Michael Danby. In recent decades the participation of Jews in left-of-center parties has probably declined sharply, while socialism as a viable ideology would seem to be a thing of the past. The movement of most Jews into the upper middle class, the diminution of right-wing antisemitism, and, above all, the hostility of much of the extreme left to Israel’s post-1967 policies, have made it difficult for many Jews to identify as socialists in the old sense. Events such as the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 have also made it difficult for many to see what socialism might be like in the 21st century, especially any such ideology entailing widespread nationalization or sympathy for the radical enemies of Israel.

While many Jews, especially in the United States, remain committed to the value system of liberalism, it would seem clear that the engagement of the Jewish people with socialism is increasingly a thing of the past.

By contrast, the Holocaust and the Communist takeover in part of Europe reduced the Jewish participation in socialist politics to a mere fraction of what it had been before 1939. Nevertheless, a small number of Jews held important posts in European socialist parties after 1945, among them Ludwig Rosenberg, who was president of the German Confederation of Trade Unions, Siegfried Aufhauser (1884–1962), president of the German Federation of Labor in Berlin, Bruno Kreisky, who in 1970 became chancellor of Austria, and Karl Czernetz, who was international secretary of the Austrian Social Democratic Party.

Eastern Europe


Socialism developed in Russia later than in Western Europe, in the second half of the 19th century. The death of Nicholas I and the accession of Alexander II in 1855 led to the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 and a relaxation of the repressive regime. Jews became less isolated from the general stream of Russian public life, and the number of Jewish children in Russian secondary schools rose from 8 to 2,362 between 1840 and 1872. Many Jewish socialists came from traditional homes and were influenced by the writings of Russian philosophers, whose works they studied at secondary schools. They were largely in favor of assimilation, since they regarded Judaism as obsolete and believed that Jewish emancipation would come about through the liberalization of the Russian people with whom the Jews should integrate. Thus, most of the early Jewish socialists regarded the growth of Russian socialism as more important than Jewish emancipation. Many young Jews chose to join the revolutionaries and “go to the people.” A number of Jewish socialists converted to Christianity to facilitate their activities among the people, while Jewish women socialists became estranged from Judaism by marriage to non-Jewish revolutionaries. Though the persecution of Jews was an important motivating force in bringing Jews into the revolutionary camp, the pogroms of 1881 came as a great shock to many Jewish revolutionaries. Particularly disappointing were the antisemitic trends in the Populist movement and the indifference of non-Jewish revolutionaries to violent outbreaks against Jews. In addition Jewish socialists who neglected their own people because they believed them to be tradesmen and middlemen discovered the existence of Jewish workers who were facing oppression and social exploitation.

Some of the first Jewish socialists were prominent in revolutionary uprisings outside the borders of Russia. Robert Feinberg fought in the German revolution of 1848 and was later deported to Siberia, where he died, and Nicolai Utin, son of a rich Jewish contractor, was a liaison officer for the Polish revolutionaries in 1863. Utin fled to Germany, where he became a colleague of Karl Marx and established the Russian section of the First International. However, others were prominent in the ideological movements of the 1860s and 1870s which grew up in the wake of the acute poverty of the Jews. Marc Natanson (1849–1920), son of a Jewish merchant from Grodno, was the organizer of the Zemlya i Volya (“Land and Liberty”) group from which emerged some of the famous non-Jewish revolutionary figures, such as Prince Peter Kropotkin, Vera Zasulich, and Georg Plekhanov. Joseph Aptekman (1850) and Lev Deitsch (1855–1941) were leaders of the Narodniki (Populists), a movement which developed among the intelligentsia to redress the injustices done to the Russian peasants. The revolutionaries dressed like peasants and lived with the peasants in the countryside. They soon exposed themselves to ridicule and many were arrested and imprisoned. The failure of the Populists led the revolutionaries to attempt fresh measures. In 1878 the terrorist group known as the Narodnaya Volya (“People’s Will”) was formed to combat oppression by violence. A number of Jews joined the organization. Many were made desperate by their increasing poverty resulting from the emancipation of the serfs, which enabled the latter to enter trades which had previously been mostly occupied by Jews. Several Jewish members of the Narodnaya Volya were captured and executed, among them Aaron Gobet, who had participated in a plot to assassinate Czar Alexander II in 1879, Solomon Wittenberg, and Meir Mlodetsky, a yeshivah student from Slutsk. Another member, Grigori Goldenberg (1855–1880), committed suicide in the fortress of Petropavlovsk after being arrested for assassinating the governor-general of Kharkov. Other Jewish revolutionaries included Aaron Zundelevich (1850–1923) and Saveli Zlatopolsky, who were members of the executive committee of Narodnaya Volya. The assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 led to a reign of terror against the revolutionaries, but the latter continued to work against the regime and many joined the underground socialist organizations that sprang up toward the end of the 19th century.

Jews were exceptionally prominent in the Social Democratic movement and some eventually became leaders of the Russian Social Democratic Party, such as Julius Martov and Lev Trotsky. Others were active in Jewish workers’ groups which united in 1897 as the Bund and by 1904 numbered 23,000 Jews from Lithuania, Russia, and Poland. The Bund and the Russian Social Democrats were united in their opposition to Zionism, but while the Social Democrats insisted that the Jews should assimilate with the general Russian population, the Bund campaigned for recognition of a separate Jewish nationality within a federation of nationalities. After the 1903 split in the Social Democratic Party into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, some Jewish members of the two groups were particularly vociferous in their opposition to Jewish national aspirations. The Bolsheviks argued that the revolution would solve the Jewish question by giving Jews complete equality and thus lead to their assimilation with the rest of the population.

A third organization in which Jews of Russia played a prominent part was the Russian Social Revolutionary Party formed in Switzerland in 1901. A successor party to the terrorist Narodnaya Volya, the party advocated agrarian reform by violence and the establishment of a Russian federation. Among the forerunners of the movement were Chaim Zhitlowsky, who later settled in the United States, Mendel Rosenbaum, who immigrated to Israel, and Charles Rappoport, who became an important figure in the French Communist Party. The movement included a terrorist “fighting organization” in which Mikhail Gots (1866–1906), Abraham Gots (1882–1937), Grigori Gershuni, and Yevno Azeff were prominent. Unlike the Social Democratic Party, they were not hostile to Zionism and did not actively struggle for assimilationism. The ultimate success of the Bolsheviks under Lenin eventually brought about the end of Jewish participation in the socialist movement in Russia. Those Jewish socialists who were opposed to the Bolsheviks were forced to go into exile, and while many other Jews held prominent positions in the Communist Party, they were ultimately purged from the party hierarchy either between 1936 and 1939 or between 1948 and 1953.


In Poland, Jews were among the pioneers of the socialist movement in the latter part of the 19th century. The first socialist group, Proletariat, was an underground organization responsible for numerous workers’ strikes. It included a number of Jews, among them Zigmund Dering and Szymon Dickstein. Proletariat gave way to the Social Democratic Party (SDKP), a Marxist party which rejected Polish independence and advocated partnership with the Russian socialist movement. Among its leading members were Rosa Luxemburg, Leo Yogiches and Adolf Warski-Warshawski, all of whom opposed the Bund and the nationalist Polish Socialist Party (PPS). Nevertheless, the Bund and the PPS attracted considerable support from prominent Jewish socialists such as Herman Diamand, Herman Liebermann, and Boleslaw Drobner. In Romania, too, Jews were among the founders of the socialist movement. Thus Constantin Gherea-Dobrogeanu (1855–1920) organized a peasants’ revolutionary group in Russia and later settled in Romania, where he advocated universal suffrage. The Romanian Socialist Party was largely antisemitic, however, and when the Jewish Social Democratic group, Lamina, submitted a memorandum to the international Socialist Congress (1896) on the plight of the Jews in Romania, the Romanian socialists defended their party’s inimical attitude to the Jewish question. The New Social Democratic Party formed in 1910 urged equality for the Jews but had little influence on the reactionary governments of Romania during the first half of the century.


E. Silberner, Western European Socialism and the Jewish Problem (1955), incl. bibl.; idem, Ha-Sozyalism ha-Ma’aravi u-She’elat ha-Yehudim… (1955); idem, in: HJ, 15 (1953), 3–48; 16 (1954), 3–38; idem, in: HUCA, 24 (1953), 151–86; idem, in: JSOS, 8 (1946), 245–66; 9 (1947), 339–62; idem, in: Scripta Hierosolymitana, 3 (1955); O. Bauer, Die Nationalitaetenfrage und die Sozialdemokratie (19242); G.D.H. Cole, A History of Socialist Thought, 5 vols. (1953–60), index; J. Braunthal In Search of the Millennium (1945); idem, Geschichte der Internationale, 2 vols. (1961–63); J. Joll, The Second International (1966); D.A. Chalmers, The Social Democratic Party of Germany (1964); E. Mendelsohn, Class Struggle in the Pale (1970); J.L.H. Keep, The Rise of Social Democracy in Russia (1963); K. Landauer, European Socialism: A History of Ideas and Movements from the Industrial Revolution to Hitler’s Seizure of Power, 2 vols. (1959). IN THE U.S.: D. Bell, in: D.D. Egbert and S. Persons, Socialism and American Life, 2 vols. (1952), 215–425; A. Goren, New York Jews and the Quest for Community: The Kehillah Experiment 19081922 (1970), 186–96; A. Gorenstein (Goren), in: AJHSP, 50 (1960/61), 202–38; R. Rockaway, in: Detroit Historical Society, Bulletin (Nov. 1970), 4–9; D.A. Shannon, The Socialist Party of America (1955); J.S. Hertz, Di Yidishe Sotsialistishe Bavegung in Amerike (1954); R. Schwarz, in: Fraenkel (ed.), The Jews of Austria (1967), 445–66; M. Jarblum, The Socialist International and Zionism (1933). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: SOCIALISM AND WOMEN: H. Davis-Kram, “The Story of the Sisters of the Bund,” in: Contemporary Jewry, 5:2 (1980), 7–43; P.S. Foner, Women and the American Labor Movement: From Colonial Times to the Eve of World War I (1979); S. Glenn, Daughters of the Shtetl: Life and Labor in the Immigrant Generation (1990; P.E. Hyman, Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History (1995); N. Levin, Jewish Socialist Movements, 1877–1917 (1978); E. Mendelsohn, Class Struggle in the Pale: The Formative Years of the Jewish Workers’ Movement in Tsarist Russia (1970); T. Michels, “Socialism and the Writing of American Jewish History: World of Our Fathers Revisited,” in: American Jewish History, 88:4 (December 2000), 521–46; idem, “Socialism with a Jewish Face: The Origins of the Yiddish-Speaking Communist Movement in the United States, 190–1923,” in: G. Estraikh and M. Krutikov (eds.), Yiddish and the Left (2001), 24–55; A. Orleck, Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900–1965 (1995); G. Sorin, “Socialism,” in: P.E. Hyman and D.D. Moore (eds.), Jewish Women in America (1997), 2:1269–73.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.