The expression “antisemitism is the socialism of fools” is widely attributed to the late-nineteenth-century German socialist August Bebel. In fact, Bebel did not ‘invent’ the expression. Nor did he even agree with it.
The original version of the saying is to be found in a speech by Ferdinand Kronawetter, an Austrian liberal sympathetic to the labour movement, at a general meeting of the Margarethen District Electoral Association held in Vienna in April of 1889:
“We democrats are called traitors, Jews and lackeys of Jews. We are none of these, but neither are we the boot-polishers of Liechtenstein, slaves to priests, or hypocrites who, as democrats, lie prostrate and swivel-eyed as we receive the telegraphed blessing of the Pope. (Stormy applause.)
Antisemitism is nothing but the socialism of the idiot of Vienna (loud laughter) – for what reasonable person can believe that the future will be better if people are led back into the darkness of the Middle Ages?”
The following day (24/04/1889) a report of the meeting, including the quote from Kronawetter, was published in the Austrian newspaper Neue Freie Presse. (The newspaper’s best known journalist was its Paris correspondent and subsequent literary editor: Theodor Herzl.)
“The idiot of Vienna” was a well-established expression, akin to a localised version of the generic “village idiot” in England. A satirical magazine entitled The Idiot of Vienna had been launched in 1864 (although its name had changed by 1889) and Vienna’s best-known music-hall at the turn of the century bore the same name.
Kronawetter’s comments had been triggered by the growing popularity of Karl Lüger. The latter had been a member of the Vienna City Council since 1875, to which he had been elected as a liberal, and a member of the Austrian Parliament since 1885.
To expand his electoral base and counter the rise of Austrian social democracy, Lüger developed a political programme in alliance with Aloys Prinz von und zu Liechtenstein, Catholic theologians, social-conservative politicians and other ‘worthies’ of the Austrian establishment.
The resulting programme was a mixture of German nationalism, Catholic social teachings, appeals to a specifically Catholic-Austrian identity, basic social security policies, and antisemitism (which scapegoated Jews for the economic crisis faced by sections of the Austrian petty bourgeoisie).
Without mentioning Lüger by name, Kronawetter’s comments targeted every aspect of his politics, climaxing in the metaphor of the idiot of Vienna:
The alliance with the Prince of Liechtenstein and Catholic priests, the support of the Pope (Lüger and his allies had revived the Austrian “Catholics Day” celebration in 1889), the hypocrisy of his ‘liberal’ pretentions, the fake ‘socialism’ of his social security policies, and his backward-looking antisemitism.
In the course of the 1890s Kronawetter’s description of antisemitism as the socialism of the idiot of Vienna – or various forms of that expression – featured repeatedly in newspaper articles about antisemitism, but not always with the meaning intended by Kronawetter:
An article in the “Bukowinaer Rundshau” (published in Czernowitz, then part of the Austro-Hungary), cited Kronawetter in its prediction of the collapse of “fanatical antisemitism” in Austria:
“As Member of the Reichsrat (Imperial Council) Kronawetter once rightly put it: ‘Antisemitism is the socialism of the idiot of Vienna’. … As it (fanatical antisemitism) turns out to have no prospect of success, its supporters will gradually fall away.”(16/01/1890)
An analysis of the German elections of 1893 in the Neue Freie Presse saw them as confirmation of Kronawetter’s comment:
“[According to the Berliner Tageblatt newspaper], the increase in the number of antisemitic votes confirms the truth of Kronawetter’s expression, which has been accepted by Singer (a leading figure in the SPD) that antisemitism is the socialism of idiots, save that in Germany antisemitism predominantly means the demagogy of reactionaries.” (26/06/1893)
Later the same year the Tages-Post (published in Linz, Austria) put Kronawetter’s expression in a broader analytical context:
“This tendency (antisemitism) is nothing but the precursor of social democracy. ‘Antisemitism,’ as Dr. Kronawetter forcefully put it in relation to the movement in Vienna, ‘is the socialism of the idiot of Vienna.’ He is certainly not wrong. There is no doubt that this demagogy does the prepatory work for social democracy. It borrows its catchphrases and plays round with them.” (26/10/1893)
Continuing the same analysis, a subsequent article in the same newspaper looked forward to a political realignment of antisemites:
“When the antisemitic party emerged in Vienna, Kronawetter said in his drastic style: ‘Antisemitism is the socialism of the idiots of Vienna.’ And he is not wrong, insofar as he had a good understanding of the inner impulses which were in play in the growth of the antisemitic movement in Vienna....
"Only a small change is still needed among antisemites – that they make immobile capital as well as mobile capital [i.e. industrial capital as well as finance capital] an object of their struggle – and then they have reached in this respect the social-democrats. … Today this final change is no more than the question of a short space of time.” (05/02/1895)
The popularity achieved by Kronawetter’s expression in the course of the 1890s was noted in an article (“The Idiot of Vienna”) published by the German magazine Die Gegenwart in July of 1905:
“[In criticising Lüger] one of the liberal jokers used the expression ‘the idiot of Vienna”, and this was a hit of the first order. … Who watches without caring as Dr. Lüger wastes 60 millions on a gas works? ‘The idiot of Vienna’. Who votes antisemitic? ‘The idiot of Vienna’. Who lets himself be enthused by the Lüger March and whistles along with it? ‘The idiot of Vienna’. Who rules in the Town Hall? ‘The idiot of Vienna’.” (15/07/1905)
Such articles – and others which likewise referred, even if only in passing, to Kronawetter’s expression – indicated the extent to which his statement became part of a ‘popular culture’ in the 1890s, at least among social-democrats and liberals. But they also indicated something else.
Nothing in Kronawetter’s speech had suggested that he saw Lüger’s antisemitism as being anything other than just as reactionary as the rest of the latter’s politics. Until and unless evidence to the contrary is unearthed, Kronawetter did not see some ‘socialist’ essence hidden away in Lüger’s antisemitism.
(Given that Kronawetter was not a socialist, it would have been unlikely if he had even looked for such a hidden essence.)
But the articles in the Tages-Post did just that. They grafted onto Kronawetter’s expression a new and different meaning: Antisemitism was, or might be, a step towards socialism.
The adherents of antisemitism might be idiots – they saw specifically Jewish capital as the problem, not capitalism in general. But at least they were heading in the right direction. And in only “a short space of time” they could or would reach the camp of social democracy.
The same interpretation of antisemitism – and of Kronawetter’s expression – was dominant in discussions in the Social-Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) in the 1890s. Similar to the situation in Austria, those discussions were triggered by the rise of a popular antisemitic movement in Germany in the closing decades of the nineteenth century.
In the 1880s Adolf Stöcker, a chaplain at the Imperial court, had built a German-nationalist and antisemitic mass movement based on sections of the petty bourgeoisie. Although his influence waned in the 1890s, he remained a high-profile antisemitic agitator and Reichstag Deputy (German MP) until his death.
While Stöcker’s influence declined in the 1890s, that of Hermann Ahlwardt increased. Ahlwardt was a pamphleteer who specialised in Jewish conspiracy theories. In 1892 his antisemitic agitation, even cruder that that of Stöcker, secured his election to the Reichstag, which he then used as a platform to promote a virulent antisemitism.
Whereas Kronawetter had dismissed Lüger’s antisemitism as a medieval leftover (“... the darkness of the Middle Ages …”) in a single sentence, the SPD theorised at length about antisemitism (and Jews), in an attempt to understand how antisemitism could remain a force in a capitalist society.
One element of the SPD’s conclusions, at least in the 1890s, was that antisemitism was a primitive and distorted form of anti-capitalism which would ultimately benefit social democracy. This was one of the central themes of August Bebel’s lengthy speech on Jews and antisemitism at the 1893 SPD congress in Cologne.
Antisemitism targeted Jewish capitalists and scapegoated them for the evils of capitalism itself. But, by virtue of its own logic and also under the pressure of its popular base, antisemitism would end up confronting “capital in general”. Then “the moment will have come when our ideas can and will fall on fertile ground.”
Antisemitism had “a contradictory reactionary-revolutionary nature.” When its followers realised that the real enemy was capitalism not the Jewish capitalist, then “against its will but of necessity it must become revolutionary, and thereby plays into our hands, the hands of social democracy.”
Social democracy combated antisemitism because it was a movement “directed against the natural development of society.” It had “a reactionary character” but, “against its will and in the final analysis”, it would have “a revolutionary effect”:
“The petty-bourgeois and small-peasant layers which are roused up against Jewish capitalists by antisemitism must come to recognise that their enemy is not just the Jewish capitalist but the capitalist class in general, and that only the achievement of socialism can free them from their misery.”
The same idea had been expressed, more crudely, four months earlier in the pages of the SPD newspaper Vorwärts. In its analysis of the results of German elections it highlighted the significance of the growth of the antisemitic vote:
“That the conservative and national-liberal parties have arrived at antisemitism is the finest illustration of the nature of capitalism. It is only logical that on the bourgeois side the antisemites have taken over the leadership in the struggle of the capitalists against socialism.
"Soon the remnants of the national-liberal and conservative parties will also have been absorbed into antisemitism, which, along with its twin brother, represents the final phase of the dying capitalist society. Speed the day! It is good fortune that the process of decay advances so rapidly. Antisemitism itself must be of assistance here.
"However anti-culture it is, it is also the bearer of a culture against its will, it is the cultural fertiliser for the seed of social democracy, and we therefore take delight in the successes of antisemitism, which are a hard blow for all other capitalist parties, almost as much as for our own.”
In later years the same idea was expressed by Karl Liebknecht: “Yes, the antisemites plough and sow, and we social-democrats will harvest. Their successes are not in any way unwelcome to us.”
This was the concept of antisemitism which underpinned the SPD’s adoption of Kronawetter’s expression. “The socialism of the idiot (of Vienna)” ceased to be a statement of unqualified condemnation of antisemitism. It was transformed into a statement which attributed a ‘progressive’ dimension to antisemitism.
Nearly a full year before Bebel’s speech to the 1893 SPD congress the SPD regional newspaper “Hamburger Echo” had explained:
“Antisemitism is the socialism of the idiot … and the socialism of the petty bourgeoisie. Suffering more and more under the crushing force of big capital, the petty bourgeoisie rebels against its oppressor and enemy, but against a part rather than the whole, against individuals rather than the system, against the Jews rather than against capitalism, and precisely for this reason is antisemitism the socialism of the idiot.”
In an article published in the SPD magazine “Die Neue Zeit” (“The New Age”) five months prior to Bebel’s speech Eduard Bernstein wrote that antisemitism had rightly been called “the socialism of the idiot”. At the same time, it was “the intermediary link between socialism and the reactionary parties, apparently a dam against the former but in fact a stage prior to the former.”
Foreshadowing Bebel’s comments at the SPD congress, Bernstein explained that the nature of capitalism made it impossible to criticise Jewish capitalists without criticising non-Jewish capitalists. Capitalism was too “intertwined” to allow such a separation.
If antisemitism failed to attack non-Jewish capitalists, then “it must eat humble pie and the masses will abandon it.” The alternative was: “It (antisemitism) must recognise the solidarity of exploiters of all religious confessions, and then work directly for social democracy.”
A review of Herzl’s The Jewish State (by “J. St.” – presumably: J. Stern), published in Die Neue Zeit in 1897, went a stage further. It saw a class-struggle essence in the antisemitism which the article implicitly attributed to Jewish workers:
“The Jewish capitalists will take care not to fall for this [Herzl’s proposal for a Jewish state]. They know too well that antisemitism would follow them to the new Jewish state; it would certainly then dispense with the name and character of the ‘socialism of the idiot’ and emerge unmasked and in its true form as the struggle of the exploited masses against the exploiters.”
An issue of Die Neue Zeit published in 1906 carried an article by Philipp Scheidemann which opened with a lengthy quote from Franz Mehring in which the latter summarised the ‘background’ to Marx’ article of 1844, “On the Jewish Question”:
“The murderous role played by the Jewish moneylender in the dissolution of feudal society provoked a tremendous hatred of Jewry, and not just among peasants and artisans who had been victims of usury. …
"Since its (Jewry’s) political emancipation coincided with the bourgeois revolution, it became very democratic and very liberal, with the qualification that it immediately betrayed democracy and liberalism where they became an obstacle to its own domination. …
"This phenomenon is as old as the participation of Jewry in public conflicts, and precisely this was the trigger for Bruno Bauer’s works on the Jewish question [to which Marx’s ‘On the Jewish Question’ was a response].”
Uncritically, Scheidemann then commented:
“There we have in nuce [in a nutshell] the roots of antisemitism, the ‘socialism of the idiot’, as it is commonly referred to in Austria. Antisemitism can be condemned as harshly as one wants, but it has nonetheless one achievement to its credit. It has understood how to promote an interest in politics amongst social layers of our population which no other party had previously succeeded in stirring into motion.”
The analysis of antisemitism which provided the substance of this corruption of Kronawetter’s expression had been delivered by Bebel at the SPD congress of 1893. But Bebel himself never used the expression – because he understood what Kronawetter had meant by it.
In an interview with the Austrian writer Hermann Bahr in 1894 Bebel explained:
“In your country someone once said – I think it was Kronawetter – ‘Antisemitism is the socialism of the idiot.’ That’s a clever saying. But it’s not right. The actual bearers of antisemitism, small-scale business and small landowners, are, from their own point of view, not that wrong. They are confronted by capital mainly in the form of the Jew.”
Bebel then expanded on theme of “capital mainly in the form of the Jew”, invoking Jewish mortgage-holders, Jewish purchasers of agrarian produce, Jewish traders, and Jewish money-lenders to whom military officers, civil servants and students were all indebted. He concluded:
“All the negative effects of capitalism thereby always appear to people in the form of the Jew, and so it is quite natural that these social layers succumb to antisemitism. … Antisemitism can be fully explained on the basis of the existing conditions, and in addition it is artificially encouraged and whipped up by all kinds of people.”
(To complicate matters still further, the expression “socialism of idiots” was also deployed by antisemites against the SPD. According to the antisemitic Reichstag Deputy Liebermann von Sonnenberg: “Not antisemitism but social democracy is the socialism of idiots. We antisemites fight capital everywhere where it is harmful, in contrast to social democracy, which pretends to fight all capital but makes an exception for Jewish capital.”)
Notwithstanding Scheidemann’s reference to “the socialism of the idiot” in his article of 1906, the popularity of Kronawetter’s expression, even with its distorted meaning, began to ebb after the turn of the century. There were two reasons for this.
Firstly, the late-nineteenth-century wave of popular antisemitism had itself begun to ebb.
Lüger was still Mayor of Vienna and an antisemitic demagogue. But he increasingly relied on his record as the ‘municipal moderniser’ of Vienna to expand and consolidate his electoral base.
Stöcker never recovered the influence he had previously wielded and died in 1909. And Ahlwardt lost his seat in the 1903 Reichstag elections and withdrew from politics.
Scheidemann’s article of 1906, entitled 'Transformations of Antisemitism', had had this decline as its theme: Antisemitism in Germany had mobilised the previously apolitical petty bourgeoisie and peasantry, but now it could do no more than “vegetate”.
This left its adherents with the choice of being reactionary conservatives or “recognising antisemitism in all its wretchedness” and “learning to think politically and becoming a social democrat.”
Secondly, the earlier focus on the ‘new’ western European antisemitism was replaced by a focus on antisemitism in Russia.
Articles in Die Neue Zeit denounced the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, the pogroms which followed the 1905 Revolution, discrimination against Jews in the Pale of Settlement, and the role of the Tsar and the Russian state in promoting antisemitism. Later articles condemned the Beylis blood libel trial and the treatment of Jews after the outbreak of the First World War.
Whatever meaning might have been attached to the expression “antisemitism is the socialism of the idiot”, it had, by any standards, no purchase on Tsarist antisemitic discrimination and pogromist slaughters.
This shift in the perception of antisemitism was reflected in Bebel’s writings. In 1893 he had described antisemitism as having a “contradictory reactionary-revolutionary nature” and an ultimately “revolutionary effect”. But in an article of 1906 about the pogroms in Russia he wrote:
“Antisemitism has shown itself in its ugliest and most repulsive force since the eruption of the great Russian revolutionary movement. … The shameful deeds which these mobs of marauders and murderers have committed have horrified the civilised world.
"The German antisemites boast of their Christianity … but cannot find a word of reproach or even sympathy, and have a problem suppressing their satisfaction. Antisemitism, which, by its very nature, can base itself only on the most base drives and instincts of a backward layer of society, represents the moral impoverishment of the layers of society which support it.”
As Kronawetter’s expression came to be used less frequently, confusion also began to emerge about what he had said and who had said what he had said.
An article in the SPD regional newspaper Salzburger Wacht claimed, albeit not entirely wrongly:
“The Christian-Social Party emerged as the socialism of the idiot of Vienna and has evolved through so many variations of hypocrisy, baseness and popular deceit since then that hardly any other collection of individuals under the sun has caused such misfortunes.” (26/04/1909)
(In 1888 Lüger had succeeded in uniting the German-National and Christian-Social factions on Vienna City Council into a single group. But the name “Christian Social Party” was not adopted until 1892.)
In 1919 an article in the Austrian Jüdische Korrespondenz newspaper attributed an amended version of Kronawetter’s expression to the Austrian social-democratic politician Victor Adler: “It was surely Victor Adler who once said that Vienna antisemitism is the socialism of foolish Vienna youth.” (22/05/1919)
Trotsky was even more off the mark when he wrote in “Imperialism and Antisemitism” two decades later: “It is not for nothing that Frederick Engels said that antisemitism is the ‘socialism of fools’!” (26/05/1940)
But none of this explains how Kronawetter’s expression came to be attributed to August Bebel, nor how the original meaning of the expression came to be restored to it, in contrast to the interpretation which had been imposed on it at the turn of the century.
Arguably, the expression came to be attributed to Bebel because his speech at the 1893 SPD congress provided the analysis of antisemitism which, wrongly, was read into Kronawetter’s expression. Bebel’s speech, originally due to have been delivered at the 1892 congress, amounted to the party’s ‘official’ analysis of antisemitism.
Arguably, the expression “socialism is the antisemitism of fools” – the now standard English translation, with the Viennese particularisation of the original removed – re-emerged with its original meaning only in the late 1960s.
The expression had begun to disappear from view in the opening years of the twentieth century. In later years, despite Trotsky’s passing reference to it in 1940, the expression could hardly be applied to the Nazi antisemitism of the Holocaust.
When Kronawetter had first uttered the words, the response from the audience had been one of “loud laughter”. People laughed because it was a hilarious metaphor. But the eliminatory antisemitism of the Nazis was no laughing matter. And in the decades immediately following 1945 antisemitism remained inseparable from the Holocaust.
Only with the emergence in the late 1960s of a new form of antisemitism, in the guise of ‘anti-Zionism’, could Kronawetter’s expression again be usefully employed: As part of a critique of the antisemitic ‘anti-Zionism’ which had begun to take root in sections of the left.
If antisemitism had been the socialism of fools in the nineteenth century, then a particular, antisemitic, form of ‘anti-Zionism’ was the anti-imperialism of fools in the twentieth century.
As Steve Cohen put it, even if not entirely accurately, in his book That’s Funny – You Don’t Look Antisemitic in 1984: “Just as August Bebel famously described the equation of capital with Jew as the socialism of fools, then the equation of Zionism with world domination with Jew is the anti‐Zionism of fools.”
As early as 1969 the Austrian-Jewish Holocaust survivor Jean Amery – and Amery may not have been the first to have done so – employed the truncated version of Kronawetter’s expression in an article criticising the antisemitism which he saw beneath the surface of ‘anti-Zionism’ and ‘anti-Israelism’.
“The classic phenomenon of antisemitism is taking on a contemporary form. The new concepts emerged right after the Six Day War and have gradually made headway: … anti-Israelism, anti-Zionism, both in purest harmony with the antisemitism of times past.
"But what is new is: this antisemitism which presents itself as no more than anti-Israelism is located on the left. That used to be the socialism of fools. Now it is becoming an integral part of socialism per se. And every socialist is therefore voluntarily making a fool of himself.” (Die Zeit, 25/07/1969)
And therein lies the real foolishness. Not the misattribution of Kronawetter’s expression to Bebel. Nor the misunderstanding of how the term was used 120 years ago. But the fact that there are still sections of the left where the idiot of Vienna would feel at home.