Jerry Z. Muller


On his book Capitalism and the Jews

Cover Interview of June 13, 2010

The wide angle

My previous book, The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Modern European Thought, examined how modern European intellectuals thought about commerce.  Writing it, I recognized that the way modern European thinkers viewed commerce was often linked to the way they thought about Jews.

I wanted to explore that theme in greater depth—and that became my new book’s the first chapter, “The Long Shadow of Usury: Capitalism and the Jews in Modern European Thought.”

This first chapter begins by explaining the significance of the concept of “usury” in western thought, and then examines the ways in which modern European thinkers—including Montesquieu, Voltaire, Marx, Sombart, Weber, Simmel, Hayek and Keynes thought about the linkages between capitalism and the Jews.

The second chapter “The Jewish Response to Capitalism,” takes up a claim by Milton Friedman that Jews were among the major beneficiaries of capitalism, but among its most persistent antagonists.  Drawing together a good deal of scattered historical and social scientific research, the chapter examines the historical reasons while Jews tended to do disproportionately well in capitalist societies, when they were granted a modicum of legal equality—a theme that Friedman ignored.

In this chapter, I also show that Jews’ actual intellectual and political allegiances were more varied than Friedman let on.  Jews have been among the most articulate defenders of capitalism as well as among its most vociferous critics.

The third chapter, “Radical Anticapitalism: The Jew as Communist,” examines the still underexplored phenomenon of Jewish salience in Communist movements. It shows that while few Jews were in fact communists, Jewish communists rose to positions of great salience in communist movements—often with disastrous effects, not least because the myth of the Jew as Bolshevik contributed to anti-Semitism on the political right.

The last chapter, “The Economics of Nationalism and the Fate of the Jews in Twentieth-Century Europe” examines the ways in which the very success of Jews in emerging capitalist societies could lead to envy, resentment, and the attempt to extrude them from the nation states of modern Europe.  This chapter thus explains the role of economic processes in creating Zionism, perhaps the most important expression of modern Jewish politics.