On the Suffering of Jews, And Others.

January 15, 2023

In Journal Norman Finkelstein

On the Suffering of Jews, and Others (January 13, 2023)


The Jewish left has never much cared for Rosa Luxemburg.  It was alleged that she was insufficiently Jewish—an assimilationist or, worse still, a self-loathing Jew.  The proof-positive is a letter to her close friend in which she disclaimed a partisanship to the “special suffering of the Jews.”


I am just as much concerned with the poor victims on the rubber plantations of Putumayo, the Blacks in Africa with whose corpses the Europeans play catch…. [Their cries] resound within me so strongly that I have no special place in my heart for the ghetto. I feel at home in the entire world, wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears.


Ever-brooding social critic Michael Walzer poured scorn on this passage: it was Rosa’s falsely prideful declaration that “she had made the … break with her own past and her own people; now her heart was equally open to everyone’s sorrows.”  But did she distance herself from “her own people”?  Rosa’s collected works are currently being translated into English.  One volume is devoted to her chronicle of the 1905-6 Russian revolution.[1]  This popular insurgency was met with brutal repression by the Russian autocracy.  One of the main targets of this repression were Jews.  Rosa, who—it is purported—“made the break with … her own people,” homes in on the suffering of Jews in her daily dispatches reporting Tsarist atrocities.  Two confessions: (1) before reading these pages even I had been fooled by the anti-Rosa propaganda into believing she was weak on the “Jewish Question”; (2) her reportage caused me to better understand why Zionism—that is, a Jewish Sparta—appealed to many Jews.  Herewith a sample of Rosa’s articles:


Martial law is also continuing in Lodz … four person, including two Jewish women, were killed.  [page 124]


The robberies, the raping of women by soldiers, the anti-Jewish incidents, and so on, were never based on “law” or a decree of the tsar.  These abominations were always the simple consequence of unlimited arbitrariness on the part of the government bureaucrats and the tsarist army officers, considering the life and conscience of people as nothing. [136-37]


The tsar-murderer, [is] guilty of thousands of crimes toward the Catholics, the Uniates, the Dukhobors, the Jews. [137]


The massacres committed against the Jews, which almost every week, in one place or another are carried out by the agents of the tsar, produce countless victims. [178]


The same policy of absolutism … throws the rogue gang of Caucasus Tatars against the Armenian labor movement, or which in Chisinau instigates the scum of society against the revolutionary Jewish proletariat. [192]


“Russia after the [tsarist] manifesto needs peace above all.”  That is what the gangs of plainclothes police in Odessa declare as they contrive and plot their massacres against the Jews. [261]


From … every corner of the empire come new reports of murder and looting, anti-Jewish rampages, and other bestial excesses by the police, the Cossacks, and the soldiers. [263]


The massacres, the anti-Jewish pogroms, the “patriotic” demonstrations by police agents aimed as provocation against the population. [263]


Among the population a growing bitterness against the Jews is making itself evident.  The Jews were blamed for behaving in an antipatriotic manner, for causing disturbances of the peace by political agitation, and for instigating and leading the revolutionary movement.  In the cities …, houses and stores belonging to Jews were plundered and some of them were set on fire.  Many persons were killed or wounded.  [267]


What does the tsarist “state of law” look like at this very moment? …. a general outbreak of mob violence against the Jews. [270]


New information reached us during the night about attacks against Jews…. The attacks against the Jews are continuing in Mariopol, in Donetsk, and in Kiev.  [272]


Burials are taking place here [Minsk] almost on an hourly basis of people who have fallen victim…. Fifty-four corpses were lying in the Jewish cemetery.  [273]


Uproar and looting has been the order of the day here [Kiev] for four days now already.  The military shoots at Jewish houses, because the Jews resisted the looting by force of arms. [276]


During the course of yesterday, the outrages of the mob continued [in Odessa].  A large number of Jewish shops … were looted…. Reports of severe mob outrages have also been received from Chisinau, Nikolaev, Sevastopol, Rostov, and Kirovohrad, crimes principally directed against Jewish businesses and shops. [277]


Revolutionaries held speeches … containing sharp attacks against the emperor, which were then followed by looting of the Jews’ apartments and shops.  [278]


The population has been rioting [in Yaroslavl] against school students and the Jews for three days now.  Jewish houses and shops were looted out entirely. [279]                                                       


Reports have been received that pogroms took place in these localities [Odessa, Kiev, Yevpatoria]  yesterday directed against the Jews. [279]


[General] Trepov will indeed remain as lord over the situation, which means the blatant rule-of-the-sword, slaughters of the Jews, and mass murders in public squares. [280]


Disturbances against the Jews commenced today [in Ivanovo-Voznesensk].  Numerous houses with shops attached to them were looted; and Jews were also killed and wounded. [282]


Trepov [is] the commanding leader of the Cossack bloodhounds, the ringleader of the appalling butcheries of the Jews, the puller-of-strings behind the arson attacks and murderous pogroms, executed by a caste of pimps and felons. [291]


In the Jewish quarter [of Odessa], the mob carried out unbelievable atrocities.  The elderly, women, and toddlers were massacred, many children were strangled, and hundreds of them were thrown alive out of the windows of high houses.  Trepov’s gangs of stranglers tortured the victims to death by hammering nails into their heads, pressing out their eyes, cutting off their ears and tearing out their tongues with pliers, while the innards of many women were also torn out; old and sick people who hid in the cellars were soaked in petrol and burned alive.  These frenzies were organized and led by police and soldiers.  In the private clinics alone, over 300 children were treated for saber wounds inflicted by soldiers to their heads and shoulders.  [291]


Anti-Semitic movements are continuing in the Odessa District.  Agitators are moving through the countryside, explaining to the people that the tsar has signed an ukase, which permits robbing and murdering Jews.  As a result of this, numerous anti-Jewish pogroms have taken place. [292]


Acts of violence against Jews are continuing in Bessarabia.  One town has been entirely destroyed by fire, and all the Jewish inhabitants there have perished. [299]


According to reliable sources in Russia, the estimate of casualties resulting from the rampages against Jews in southern Russia comes to 15,000 dead and the number of wounded is upwards of 100,000. [299]


… massacres of Jews and mass murder without end.  These are the means by which absolutism … thinks it can help itself out of this difficult spot. [303]


The rampages by the Black Hundreds [violent far-right gangs], and the riffraff incited by them, against the Jews, are continuing in the whole vast stretch of central, southern, and western Russia … the current rampages and anti-Jewish massacres have been organized by the Russian government. [304]


[A Social-Democratic] newspaper reprinted a leaflet by the so-called Black Hundreds, in order to document the rabble-rousing activities of these police scum. The Black Hundreds called for the slaughter of Jews in this leaflet. [324-25]


A summary execution was carried out … on a civil servant of the legal chambers who was accused of inciting to participation in a pogrom against the Jews.  A number of workers surrounded him on the street, commenced a formal interrogation with him, and subsequently sentenced him to death.  Workers shot him on the spot with a revolver before dispersing.  Terrible atrocities have been committed in … Bessarabia against the Jews, with girls and women dragged naked though the streets and abused in the vilest possible way.   The mob poured petrol over the Chief Rabbi of Chisinau and burned him alive. [343-44]


It is … particularly the Moscow proletariat that has won eternal glory in the battles of these memorable … weeks … there was no burning of members of the intelligentsia …, no bloody orgies started by the Black Hundreds, and no massacres of the Jews.  [432]


The Black Hundreds have for their part called for nine massacres of the Jews. Reports from various municipalities in Bessarabia say that the police themselves have called for the Jews to be persecuted. [481]


The Jews are worried that the new governor will fall back on the infamous trick of incitement to violence against them, though it is hardly possible that he should succeed in doing this, as revolutionary labor is too heavy a weight among the population to let something like that pass without punishment. [485-86]


The military have posted sentries on all streets.  The Black Hoard is being held at the ready; they have slaughtered two Jews. [501]




It manifestly cannot be said that Rosa downplayed or effaced the specificity of, let alone ignored, Jewish suffering. The gravamen of Walzer’s indictment is rather that she was no less sensitive to and indignant over the suffering of others.  And here, the verdict must emphatically be: guilty as charged!  Indeed, Rosa’s most egregious sin would appear to be that she not only refused to privilege Jewish suffering, but she also refused to privilege the suffering of white Europeans.  Put otherwise, if she was a self-hating Jew, she was also a self-hating European. In the most literal sense, Rosa’s embrace enveloped the suffering of all humankind.  In the Eurocentric, deeply racist, epoch in which she lived, her unqualified universalism was as extraordinary as it was unique.  Yes, here and there, a humanitarian of European lineage courageously defended the victims of European imperialism in Africa (E. D. Morel, Roger Casement) or Native Americans against the ravages of Euro-American colonists (Helen Hunt Jackson).  But none of her contemporaries remotely matched the breadth and depth of Rosa’s sympathies.  The revolutionary socialist Left denounced in no uncertain terms European imperialism, but one will search Lenin or Trotsky in vain for the tragically lyrical passages to be found in Rosa’s writings.  She was second to none in her violent castigations of the capitalist system and the bourgeoisie—a milquetoast revolutionary Rosa was not—and was second to none in her analytical acuity, even if not flawless,[2] of the inner logic of the system. But where Rosa also waxed eloquent in personalizing the victims of this brutal system in the non-European world, her comrades fell silent, or lacked the sensibility to express such sentiments.  Hers was the rarest of registers, not to be echoed in the West until two world wars and a half century later during the Third World national liberation struggles of the 1960s.  (Unforgivably, Lenin in fact mocked, albeit not in public but in his book marginalia, these passages of hers.  He clearly could at times be an ass.) Moreover, Rosa inhabited an, as it were, altogether different universe than the leading lights of European enlightenment such as Bertrand Russell, who had the most frightful things to say at this time about non-Europeans and could be coldly indifferent to their fate.[3]  In her magnum opus, The Accumulation of Capital (1913),[4] Rosa analyzed the outward expansion of European capitalism, as it sought vital resources, laborers, and markets in the non-capitalist world, which still unfolded in a “natural economy” without commodity production.  In the course of remaking this portion of the world in its own image, the juggernaut of Capital ruthlessly crushed the inhabitants of the non-European world beneath it.  Herewith some representative passages from Accumulation:


European colonial expansion

Since the primitive associations of the natives are the strongest protection for their social organizations and for their material bases of existence, capital must begin by planning for the systematic destruction and annihilation of all the non-capitalist social units which obstruct its development…. Each new colonial expansion is accompanied, as a matter of course, by a relentless battle of capital against the social and economic ties of the natives, who are also forcibly robbed of their means of production and labor power….  From the point of view of the primitive societies involved, it is a matter of life or death; for them there can be no other attitude than opposition and fight to the finish—complete exhaustion and extinction. [pages 370-71]



The British were the first conquerors of India who showed gross indifference to public utilities. Arabs, Afghans and Mongols had organized and maintained magnificent works of canalization in India, they had given the country a network of roads, spanned the rivers with bridges, and seen to the sinking of wells. Timur or Tamerlane, the founder of the Mongol dynasty in India, had a care for the cultivation of the soil, for irrigation, for the safety of the roads and the provision of food for travelers. The primitive Indian Rajahs, the Afghan or Mongol conquerors, at any rate, in spite of occasional cruelty against individuals, made their mark with the marvelous constructions we can find today at every step and which seem to be the work of a giant race. ‘The (East India) Company which ruled India until 1858 did not make one spring accessible, did not sink a single well, nor build a bridge for the benefit of the Indians. [375]



British capital had no object in giving the Indian communities economic support or helping them to survive. Quite the reverse, it aimed to destroy them and to deprive them of their productive forces. The unbridled greed, the acquisitive instinct of accumulation must by its very nature take every advantage of the “conditions of the market” and can have no thought for the morrow. It is incapable of seeing far enough to recognize the value of the economic monuments of an older civilization…. Not until 1867 was England able to appreciate the results of her noble efforts in this respect. In the terrible famine of that year a million people were killed in the Orissa district alone; and Parliament was shocked into investigating the causes of the emergency. [376]



It had taken the great Indian famine of 1866 to awaken the British public to the marvelous exploits of British colonial policy and to call for a parliamentary investigation; and similarly, Europe was alarmed at the end of the 1860s by the crying needs of Algeria where more than forty years of French rule culminated in widespread famine and a disastrous mortality rate among the Arabs. A commission of inquiry was set up to recommend new legislation with which to bless the Arabs: it was unanimously resolved that there was only one lifebuoy for them—the institution of private property; that the historical conditions of accumulation alone could save the Arab from destitution, since he would then always be able to sell or mortgage his land. It was decided, therefore, that the only means of alleviating the distress of the Arabs, deeply involved in debts as they were because of the French land robberies and oppressive taxation, was to deliver them completely into the hands of the usurers. This farce was expounded in all seriousness before the National Assembly and was accepted with equal gravity by that worthy body. The “victors” of the Paris Commune flaunted their brazenness…. What had really been attained [by French laws privatizing Algerian land] was all too evident: reckless speculation in land, thriving usury, and the economic ruin of the natives. [382-84]



Modern China presents a classical example of the “gentle,” “peace-loving” practices of commodity exchange with backward countries. Throughout the nineteenth century, beginning with the early forties, her history has been punctuated by wars with the object of opening her up to trade by brute force. Missionaries provoked persecutions of Christians, Europeans instigated uprisings, and in periodical massacres a completely helpless and peaceful agrarian population was forced to match arms with the most modern capitalist military technique of all the Great Powers of Europe. Heavy war contributions necessitated a public debt, China taking up European loans, resulting in European control over her finances and occupation of her fortifications; the opening of free ports was enforced, railway concessions to European capitalists extorted. By all these measures commodity exchange was fostered in China, from the early thirties of the 19th century until the beginning of the Chinese revolution. European civilization, that is to say commodity exchange with European capital, made its first impact on China with the Opium Wars when she was compelled to buy the drug from Indian plantations in order to make money for British capitalists. In the seventeenth century, the East India Company had introduced the cultivation of poppies in Bengal; the use of the drug was disseminated in China by its Canton branch…. Already in 1828, the viceroy of Canton had prohibited imports of opium…. England declared war on China to get her to lift the embargo. These were the splendid beginnings of “opening China” to European civilization—by the opium pipe.  Canton was the first objective…. Since the Chinese guns were quite useless, the British walked right through the fortifications, climbed to a strategic position—which was not even guarded—and proceeded to slaughter the helpless Chinese from above. The casualty list of the battle was: for the Chinese 600 dead, and for the British, 1 dead and 30 wounded, more than half of the latter having been injured by the accidental explosion of a powder magazine. A few weeks later, there followed another British exploit. The forts of Anung-Hoy and North Wantong were to be taken…. The Chinese, trying to escape from the barricades, had fallen into a moat which was soon literally filled to the brim with helpless soldiers begging for mercy. Into this mass of prostrate human bodies, the sepoys [Indian soldiers in the pay of Britain]—acting against orders, it is claimed—fired again and again. This is the way in which Canton was made receptive to commodity exchange…. On August 25, 1841, the British approached the town of Amoy, whose forts were armed with a hundred of the heaviest Chinese guns. These guns being almost useless, and the commanders lacking in resource, the capture of the harbor was child’s play. Under cover of a heavy barrage, British ships drew near the walls of Kulangau, landed their marines, and after a short stand the Chinese troops were driven out…. One battery, manned by Tartars, heroically held out against the combined fire of three British ships, but a British landing was effected in their rear and the post wiped out. This was the finale of the notorious Opium War…. But within fifteen years, there was a further war against China. This time, Britain had joined forces with the French. In 1857, the allied navies captured Canton with a heroism equal to that of the first war…. Both during the wars and in the interim periods, European civilization was busy looting and thieving on a grand scale in the Chinese Imperial Palaces, in the public buildings, and in the monuments of ancient civilization, not only in 1860, when the French pillaged the Emperor’s Palace with its legendary treasures, or in 1900, “when all the nations vied with each other to steal public and private property.” Every European advance was marked not only with the progress of commodity exchange, but by the smoldering ruins of the largest and most venerable towns, by the decay of agriculture over large rural areas, and by intolerably oppressive taxation for war contributions. There are more than 40 Chinese Treaty Ports—and every one of them has been paid for with streams of blood, with massacre and ruin. [386-94]


North America

In the wake of the railways, financed by European and in particular British capital, the American farmer crossed the Union from East to West, and in his progress over vast areas killed off the Red Indians with fire-arms and bloodhounds, liquor and venereal disease, pushing the survivors to the West, in order to appropriate the land they had “vacated,” to clear it and bring it under the plough.



These are the characteristics of capitalist domination on an international scale. Having evicted the peasant from his soil, it drives him from England to the East of the United States, and from there to the West, and on the ruins of the Red Indians’ economy it transforms him back into a small commodity producer. Then, when he is ruined once more, he is driven from the West to the North. With the railways in the van, and ruin in the rear—capital leads the way, its passage is marked with universal destruction. The great fall of prices in the nineties is again succeeded by higher prices for agricultural products, but this is of no more avail to the small American farmer than to the European peasant. [396, 410]


South Africa

For a long time the Boers had led the life of animal-tending nomads; they had killed off or driven out the Hottentots and Kaffirs with a will in order to deprive them of their most valuable pastures. In the eighteenth century they were given invaluable assistance by the plague, imported by ships of the East India Company, which frequently did away with entire Hottentot tribes whose lands then fell to the Dutch immigrants. When the Boers spread further East, they came in conflict with the Bantu tribes and initiated the long period of the terrible Kaffir wars. These god-fearing Dutchmen regarded themselves as the Chosen People and took no small pride in their old-fashioned Puritan morals and their intimate knowledge of the Old Testament; yet, not content with robbing the natives of their land, they built their peasant economy like parasites on the backs of the Negroes, compelling them to do slave-labor for them and corrupting and enervating them deliberately and systematically. Liquor played such an important part in this process, that the prohibition of spirits in the Cape Colony could not be carried through by the English government because of Puritan opposition. There were no railways until 1859, and Boer economy in general and on the whole remained patriarchal and based on natural economy until the sixties. But their patriarchal attitude did not deter the Boers from extreme brutality and harshness…. The Boers considered the Negroes an object, destined by God and Nature to slave for them, and as such an indispensable foundation of their peasant economy. So much so that their answer to the abolition of slavery in the English colonies in 1836 was the “Great Trek”…, and in the process they drove the Matabele to the North, across the Limpopo, setting them against the Makalakas. Just as the American farmer had driven the Red Indian West before him under the impact of capitalist economy, so the Boer drove the Negro to the North. The “Free Republics” between the Orange River and the Limpopo thus were created as a protest against the designs of the English bourgeoisie on the sacred right of slavery. The tiny peasant republics were in constant guerilla warfare against the Bantu Negroes.  And it was on the backs of the Negroes that the battle between the Boers and the English government, which went on for decades, was fought. The Negro question, i.e. the emancipation of the Negroes, ostensibly aimed at by the English bourgeoisie, served as a pretext for the conflict between England and the republics. In fact, peasant economy and great capitalist colonial policy were here competing for the Hottentots and Kaffirs, that is to say for their land and their labor power. Both competitors had precisely the same aim: to subject, expel or destroy the colored peoples, to appropriate their land and press them into service by the abolition of their social organizations. Only their methods of exploitation were fundamentally different. While the Boers stood for outdated slavery on a petty scale, on which their patriarchal peasant economy was founded, the British bourgeoisie represented modern large-scale capitalist exploitation of the land and the natives. The Constitution of the Transvaal (South African) Republic declared with crude prejudice: “The People shall not permit any equality of colored persons with white inhabitants, neither in the Church nor in the State.”


In the Orange Free State and in the Transvaal no Negro was allowed to own land, to travel without papers or to walk abroad after sunset…. A farmer, an Englishman as it happened, in the Eastern Cape Colony had flogged his Kaffir slave to death. When he was acquitted in open court, his neighbors escorted him home to the strains of music. The white man frequently maltreated his free native laborers after they had done their work—to such an extent that they would take to flight, thus saving the master their wages.


The British government employed precisely the opposite tactics. For a long time it appeared as protector of the natives; flattering the chieftains in particular, it supported their authority and tried to make them [wrongly] claim a right of disposal over [all tribal] land…. The ultimate purpose of the British government was clear: long in advance it was preparing for land robbery on a grand scale, using the native chieftains themselves as tools. But in the beginning it was content with the “pacification” of the Negroes by extensive military actions. Up to 1879 were fought bloody Kaffir wars to break the resistance of the Bantus.



[After the Boer War,] the new conflict between capital and labor had superseded the old one between British and Dutch. One million white exploiters of both nations sealed their touching fraternal alliance within the Union with the civil and political disfranchisement of five million colored workers. Not only the Negroes of the Boer Republics came away empty-handed, but the natives of the Cape Colony, whom the British government had at one time granted political equality, were also deprived of some of their rights. And this noble work, culminating under the imperialist policy of the Conservatives in open oppression, was actually to be finished by the Liberal Party itself, amid frenzied applause from the “liberal cretins of Europe” who with sentimental pride took as proof of the still continuing creative vigor and greatness of English liberalism the fact that Britain had granted complete self-government and freedom to a handful of whites in South Africa.




The greater the debt to European capital became, the more had to be international loans extorted from the peasants. In 1869 all taxes were put up by 10 per cent and the taxes for the coming year collected in advance…. All over Upper Egypt people were leaving the villages, demolished their dwellings and no longer tilled their land—only to avoid payment of taxes. In 1876, the tax on date palms was increased. Whole villages went out to fell their date palms and had to be prevented by rifle volleys. North of Siut, 10,000 fellaheen are said to have starved in 1879 because they could no longer raise the irrigation tax for their fields and had killed their cattle to avoid paying tax on it.  Now the fellah had been drained of his last drop of blood. Used as a leech by European capital, the Egyptian state had accomplished its function and was no longer needed. Ismail, the Khedive, was given his congé [leave]; capital could begin winding up operations…. British commissions to “regulate” the finances of Egypt went into action…. With the financial position growing hopelessly desperate, the time drew near when the country and all her productive forces was to become the prey of European capital. October 1878 saw the representatives of the European creditors landing in Alexandria. British and French capital established dual control of finances and devised new taxes; the peasants were beaten and oppressed, so that payment of interest, temporarily suspended in 1876, could be resumed in 1877.  Now the claims of European capital became the pivot of economic life and the sole consideration of the financial system….  In 1879, the finances of Egypt were brought under permanent control of European capital…. An opportune pretext for the final blow was provided by a mutiny in the Egyptian army, starved under European financial control while European officials were drawing excellent salaries, and by a revolt engineered among the Alexandrian masses who had been bled white. The British military occupied Egypt in 1882, as a result of twenty years’ operations of Big Business, never to leave again. This was the ultimate and final step in the process of liquidating peasant economy in Egypt by and for European capital. [435-37]


[1] The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, Vol. III: Political Writings 1, On Revolution, 1897-1905, edited by Peter Hudis, et al. (New York: 2019).

[2] Paul M. Sweezy, Rosa Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital, in Science and Society (Fall, 1967).

[3] On Russell, see my forthcoming book, I’ll Burn That Bridge When I Get to It!

[4] Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital (New York: 1951).