“The Modern Age is the Jewish Age, and the twentieth century, in particular, is the Jewish Century.” Such is the opening line of Yuri Slezkine’s intriguing and controversial book, the Jewish Century. Slezkine charts modernity through the journey of one, albeit significant, ethnic/religious group:
Slezkine’s argument is complex and its implications profound. If modernity is about becoming urban, mobile, and literate; if it is about being ripped from the land and thrust into the abyss of free labor; if it is about the dissolution of national borders and everyone becoming nomads; and if it is about the struggle of the self to reconcile the plethora of modern “identities”, then the Jews represent the most adaptive group to these changes. Within their culture and tradition is something best suited for dealing with the fact that in the modern age,
“All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.” (The Communist Manifesto)
The Jew is a chameleon, a shape shifter, a mimic man. Ironically, these are also stereotypes many have used to persecute Jews. In a way, the anti-Semites of the 19th century already wrote Slezkine’s argument. Except that their pen was not a computer in
Yet, while the Jews are the models for the modern, their particular journey disavowals it. As we were becoming more modern, that is more “Jewish,” the Jews themselves were becoming more like us. They either suppressed their Jewishness in favor of identification with an over arching national identity: Russian, German, etc; or if their host country foreclosed assimilation, they became hyphenated, split: Jewish-American, Russian-Jew, German-Jew. They were almost the same but not quite, hampered by the primordialism of their “blood.” And blood was the curse of the modern age. As science categorized the “races” into advanced and primitive, blood became the marker of being in the last instance. Culture, with all its messiness and malleability, was streamlined into the fixed empiricism of science. Jews could therefore become Germanized and Russified but never really German or Russian. Their blood contained an essence, a one millionth of one percent that made them, despite all efforts, Jewish. If the modern age was about the mobility of body and fluidity of self, then the very ideology of modernity itself, the search for absolute scientific truth and origin, was its own contradiction. Because of their cultural adaptability, the Jews were never really fully outside, but because of their blood they could never be completely inside either.
This in-betweeness was the nature of what Slezkine calls the Mercurians. The Mercurians followed the example of the Greek god Hermes (Mercury), who was “the god of all those who did not herd animals, till the soil, or live by the sword; the patron of rule breakers, border crossers, and go-betweens; the protector of people who lived by their wit, craft, and art.” Mercurians are those groups who mockingly danced on the borders of the hegemonic. They are the Romani of Europe, the Sikhs of India, the Armenians of the
However, every concept has its Cain. For the Mercurians it was the Apollonians. These people were the settled and the agrarian. They also inhabited the halls of political power and looked at the Mercurians with a suspicious eye and branded them as the unwashed, the barbaric, and the primitive. For their part, the Mercurians stared back with the same piercing epithets. Instead of throwing themselves into the whirlwind of the modern, the Apollonians painstakingly tried to turn back the clocks of time. They built nations to ward off the specters of modernity for the world was theirs to lose. They were the universal to the Mercurians’ particular.
But the forces of capital were not easily tamed. By the late 19th century, the world the Apollonians knew, the world that they made turned on them. Qualitative presence of the market began trumping quantitative superiority of the fields. It became a world determined by dancing tables rather than the till. Concrete and steel replaced dirt and wood. The Appolonian nations became besieged from within and from without by ethnic and cultural aliens. The particular was rapidly becoming the universal. For those caught in this social-economic tempest, it was sink or swim. All the values that defined Apollonian life and tradition were now fetters to be overcome. All the values that defined the Mercurians became the template for modern man.
Though well suited for the birth of modernity, at the same time the Mercurians were potentially tragic figures. Contrary to some of their fellow Mercurians, like say the Romani, many Jews strove, out of desire or necessity, to go beyond the cultural and political borders that their culture professed or that others ascribed. So while mobility was integral to the Mercurian way,
It is these “native born Russians” and “perfect Soviets” that are at the center of Slezkine’s story. He shows the metrics of Jewish representation in the Soviet project, from their high percentages in the Communist leadership and the secret police to their overrepresentation in Soviet intellectual and cultural circles. His statistics reverse any doubt as to Jews’ influence.
Then everything changed. Every major Soviet nationality had a room in the Soviet communal apartment of nations. Because the Jews had no geographical space of their own like their Armenian, Georgian and Uzbek brethren, they “fixed” themselves in the room of Soviet national identity. For a time, this room was a comfortable one. But the Soviet state eventually evicted them, like so many others. The Great Terror eliminated a whole stratum of Soviet elite and promoted in their place were mostly Russians of peasant and worker origin. This new strata buttressed by the Russian patriotism of the Great Patriotic War, “began to think of itself as the legitimate heir to the Russian imperial state and Russian cultural tradition.” This, along with Hitler’s “final solution,” made many Soviet “Jews” consider something that they hadn’t in many years, and for some, for the first time. Despite all their efforts to subjugate the self, they were, in the end, simply Jews. Culture couldn’t wash away blood. In the climate of the Cold War and the creation of
The “discovery” of Jewish overrepresentation in the Soviet elite was more than a result of policy and paranoia. It was the outcome of a biopolitics that is at the core of modernity. The modern state’s desire to catalog its population according to a connection between blood and culture made all efforts to develop an individual identity born of free will a fruitless one. Populations, Soviet or otherwise, could never really escape the ethnic stamp the state gave them. Identity was always first a negotiation of categories that were a priori. Biopolitics was an Apollonian mechanism to fix the emerging Mercurian fluidity. States’ adoption of what Foucault called “governmentality” required its populations to be decipherable objects that could be compartmentalized into the prison house of the nation, and by that very act, those objects were transformed into subjects. The Soviet state was no different. The effort to fulfill the utopianism of Marx’s statement, “to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic,” (The German Ideology) was undermined by the very categories that were the metrics of Soviet progress. The state wanted, no, needed to know the quantity and quality of its population. It needed to measure its present self against its past and its future. The withering away of ethnicity demanded knowledge about the cultural and economic quality of said ethnicity. Every time the state asked: How many Jews there were in higher education compared to Uzbeks, it only unwilling regenerated what Althusser called the “reproduction of the means of reproduction.” Every statistical report on ethnicity maintained a compartment for the Jew, even if the Jews themselves had no desire to fill it. Thus, the Soviet project destroyed the Jew as a signifier as it simultaneously retained Jew as a signified.
By the 1970s, triumph and irony turned to tragedy. The postwar effort to marginalize
Still, a larger question haunts Slezkine’s study. Given that
And why is this struggle for the self connected to the general problem of the self and modernity? The story of Jewish identity in Europe and