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Egalitarianism and Bias: Veblen and the Jewish Question

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review
Volume 31, Numbers 1-2


This article explores Veblen’s position on the Jewish question. In his system of thought, Jewish culture, which is described as totally archaic, serves as pushback in the modern age. However, this unfavorable opinion cannot be explained by any form of racism. In addition to the evidence that his approach is cultural, Veblen’s entire corpus expresses his rejection of the idea that certain groups of individuals can be stigmatized within a political community. It is rather this egalitarian passion that should be invoked in order to explain his negative assessment. He attacks anything that helps to make artificial  distinctions between human beings. The “common man” must be defended against any attempt at domination.  In fact, Veblen suspects that Jews consider themselves superior to other social groups. In this sense, he is himself subject to a cultural bias.


In a seminal paper, Melvin W. Reder1 opened up the discussion on the possible anti-Semitism of some economists. The Progressive Era was a period in which racism was a continual background presence. Eugenics was developed, whereas immigration was a sensitive topic.2 In a similar way, the fear of weakening the workers’ position fueled the hostility of trade-union representatives toward the flow of foreigners and led some of them to adopt racist stances.3 In this context, anti-Semitism was particularly acute.4 American economists writing during the first two decades of the 20th century were subject to these debates and influences. This article deals with the case of a great figure of institutionalist thought, Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929). From the outset, it seems unlikely that a scholar so radically opposed to artificial distinctions between nations, peoples, or genders would display any hostility toward a particular people. Tiziana Foresti5 even recently described Veblen as philo-Semitic. We will assume that this is not as clear-cut as it may look.

Analysis of the Jewish question did not occupy a key position in Thorstein B. Veblen’s thought; in 1919 he devoted a single article to this issue, “The Intellectual Pre-eminence of Jews in Modern Europe,”6 as a result of a special request from the editor of a Jewish magazine.7 Commentators have mostly used this work to establish a parallel between Veblen’s personal journey, from a family of Norwegian immigrants and typically perceived as a marginal character, and the destiny of the Jewish people, dispersed and not always well integrated into their many host countries. This approach has been rejected by scholars like Rick Tilman8 or Stephen Edgell.9 According to them, it is more likely that Joseph Dorfman, a scholar who propounded that view, projected his personal issues as a Jewish immigrant to the United States and did not grasp Veblen’s true personality. Yet, beyond this debate on the relevance of the allegory, Veblen’s examination of the Jewish question merits discussion in its own right. We intend to show that for him, the Jews, through their values, represent the remains of an outdated social order. In this respect, Veblen should not be classified as an anti-Semite:10 he neither accuses the Jews of being dangerous to society nor envisages any discriminatory action against them. He simply regards the Jewish culture as an exemplary relic of barbarian times.

The 1919 article itself is rather short, at only 10 pages. However, Veblen also referred to the Jews in other places in his work. These passages are few and cover a wide range of subjects, from the history of biblical times11 to contemporary nationalism12 via sacred texts.13 Indeed, any reflection on the Jewish identity must necessarily touch on religion, culture, and history14 topics which were precisely at the heart of Veblenian thought. These various items concerning the Jews are often simple illustrations, but when they are considered in relation to Veblen’s analytical framework as a whole, they take on a much deeper meaning. From these snippets, it becomes clear to what extent Jewish culture is an anomaly in modern society as he saw it. Veblen is interesting because of what he says about the Jews, but also because of what his frame of reference implies about them. In this respect, it is important to point out that it is not our intention to determine whether Veblen metes out justice to Jewish culture. We only want to highlight the specific features of his opinion on the Jewish question, putting them into context.

The first step is to return to the content of the 1919 article (hereafter IPEJ). What Veblen wrote about the Jews when he was specifically focusing his analysis on them seems to be an excellent starting point. It highlights the main aspect of his position: he blames the Jews for trying to differentiate themselves. IPEJ was published in a political science magazine and was written with the idea of being accessible to readers unaware of Veblen’s institutionalist perspective. However, this article takes on quite a different resonance when seen in the light of Veblen’s cultural approach. From a religious point of view, Judaism is accused of cleavage. Then, Veblen’s investigation into the economy confirms this opinion: the Jews, who are often engaged in commercial activities, undermine concord between human beings. In all instances, Jewishness relentlessly evokes a negative opinion. That is why the last part of the present article considers what future could be envisaged for the Jewish people in light of the Veblenian theory.

The 1919 Article

IPEJ begins and ends with references to the Zionist project. Veblen expresses reservations about the economic viability of the Jews’ return to their ancestral land.15 The arguments that he put forward in this regard will be discussed later. However, it is the Jewish culture, rooted in religion, which forms the main thread of his reflection. Veblen considers that it is outdated and pushes the group toward an almost unhealthy solidarity, a “stubborn clannishness.”16 As unflattering as they are, to him these assertions seem so obvious that he sees no need to justify them. They even constitute the basis of his analysis. Over the centuries, he maintains, the combination of conservatism and isolationism has led to a form of cultural backwardness disconnected from the demands of modernity. As a result, a gulf eventually opened up between the culture of the Christian countries where the Jews were living and their own cultural environment. Some Jews, who found themselves dissatisfied, ill at ease when faced with their own customs, chose to shun them. As a result of this decision, they escaped the prejudice and preconceptions that affected their fellow Jews who remained faithful to the Jewish teachings. Detached from any form of conditioning, again according to Veblen, there was every likelihood that these pioneers would develop bold thinking.

The skepticism that became a character trait of those Jews who distanced themselves from their age-old traditions was an advantage, Veblen asserted, in the search for knowledge. It was accentuated in them even more as they did not adopt the conventional codes of the Gentile culture which might have partly curbed their imagination. Positioned between two worlds, these Jews found themselves propelled to the forefront of scientific research and were generally overrepresented in the intellectual professions – hence the title of Veblen’s article. Perhaps because they were not welcome elsewhere, but also as a result of their attachment to their inheritance, these Jews were not expected to leave their people. Despite their intellectual emancipation, for the most part they remained Jews.17 In other words, their intellectual alienation was not to be likened to spiritual alienation.

The Jewish editor who invited Veblen to write on these issues was expecting a valorization of the Jewish identity. However, what he got was exactly the opposite of what he had hoped for. The American economist concluded that the abnormally high level of Jewish presence in the intellectual professions was the result not of any superiority, but of the obsolescence of this culture. Ultimately, the article was not published in the Jewish magazine. Indeed, even the choice of words showed that Veblen felt little sympathy for the Jewish cause. In his inimitable style, he did not hesitate to resort to ironic or sarcastic expressions to augment his views. In the article, he used the phrase “Chosen People” four times and the phrase “Chosen Land” once. In the same vein, the rejection of proselytism, which is a specific feature of Jewish monotheism, was not portrayed in a positive light as a sign of the “live and let live” approach of which Veblen was an advocate. Far from esteeming it, Veblen described it as a sign of indifference: “It is not for them to take thought of their unblest neighbors and seek to dispel the darkness that overlies the soul of the gentiles.”18 Such deprecation was almost systematic.

Veblen is an absolute egalitarian. In all of his work, he sets the interests of the collectivity against those of its members who are prone to individualistic behavior. The community can be understood as a group made up of individuals but also as the whole of humanity made up of all human groups. Consequently, everything that contributes to differentiating individuals within the same group or between different groups one from another is viewed negatively. The message of Judaism is universalist, but its universalism passes through one specific people who have taken upon themselves the mission to be a “light for the nations,”19 and this conflicts with the Veblenian interpretation. For Veblen, there seems to be no doubt that Jewish universalism is only a facade. It is a posture destined to mask particularist goals. Its intention is to favor the interests of the Jewish people to the detriment of other peoples. Thus, the Jews’ claim to carry the divine word is similar to those “invidious distinctions” which he despises.20 Veblen takes a trenchant stance, not because he believes in a hierarchy of peoples in which the Jews are classified near the bottom, but because he ascribes to them a feeling of superiority.21

It is symptomatic that Veblen makes scarcely any mention of anti-Semitism and the persecution that the Jewish people suffered for centuries in the Christian world.22 He refers only obliquely to the “great adversity”23 that they face. In only one instance, when he insists on the notion that the Jew fundamentally remains a stranger, never finding his place in society, does he refer explicitly to the hostility of the non-Jewish environment: “Nor does the animus with which the community of safe and sane gentiles is wont to meet him conduce at all to his personal incorporation in that community, whatever may befall the intellectual assets which he brings.”24

This does not influence his opinion. Specifically, if he minimizes this absence of hospitality, it can only be because he judges it to be secondary. It in no way affects his reasoning. In his opinion, the Jews are the ones truly responsible for their situation: they are turned in upon themselves to an excessive degree and closed off to the outside world. To better understand this deep-seated view, it is essential to take a detour and consider Veblen’s model.

A Cultural Perspective

The Veblen approach is focused resolutely on the culture of social groups. Defined as the “complex of habits of life and of thought prevalent among the members of the community,”25 a culture forms a whole with a homogeneity that may or may not be strong. There are two kinds of habits of thought – what Veblen calls institutions – which, because they are antagonistic, are likely to cause tensions within one and the same cultural complex. As already mentioned, Veblen juxtaposes group cohesion and individualistic tendencies. In cultural terms, the authentic, collective logic is driven by the requirements of technology. One reason is that the knowledge associated with it and the search for productive efficiency require not only solidarity intra-group but also between generations. In addition, in the modern age, the influence of the “machine process” is not reduced to simply suggesting an interpretation of scientific phenomena where magic no longer plays a part.26 By showing the artificiality of social conventions, it helps eliminate distinctions of rank between members of the same group. In this way, the machine process attacks the other institutional, unequal mindset, based on the exploitation of mankind and on ad hoc beliefs, and described as predatory or pecuniary.

Ultimately, the discipline of the machine and the Jewish culture paradoxically fulfill a similar mission in the spirit of Veblen. Since the aim is to detach individuals from the gangue of their biases, from their submission to aberrant institutions such as private property, both are equally useful but each in its own way. The technology of the machine, which concerns humanity as a whole, is seen as the path leading to modernity. Jewish culture, for its part, despite being confined to a small population, embodies the archetypal foil. However, whether as a positive or a negative model, the two elements encourage a confrontation with the facts and it is this which forms their common denominator. To put it another way, unlike Jewish traditions which seem to symbolize a culture petrified in time, the action of the machine process falls within a dynamic of progress, as part of a mindset of breaking with bygone customs. As a result of this polarization, the contrast between the movement and the conservatism of institutions reaches a kind of climax.  

In this configuration, Veblen usually presents religions in a very critical light. They are almost automatically affiliated with institutions that perpetuate the existing social order and justify the defense of “vested interests.” The integrative function that they fulfill is not disputed; Veblen simply finds it troublesome that they are turned in an undesirable direction. This should be nuanced, however; some ancient religions are treated more favorably. This is the case for worship in pagan societies of Northern Europe, which he describes as functioning in an egalitarian way – before being replaced by Christianity.27 Veblen does not deride their superstitions, their beliefs based on magic, despite their being the complete opposite of his own aspiration for “matter-of-fact” science. Indeed, although the animist or polytheistic religions may lend themselves to constructing universes which seem obsolete to those who live in the industrial era, they do not necessarily serve “vested interests.”

Monotheistic religions do not enjoy this presumption of innocence. For Veblen, belief in a single deity, which excludes all competition and is jealous of its prerogatives, introduces by its very nature a rationale of distinction. Monotheism and despotic power go well together.28 It is therefore not surprising that Veblen put forward a somewhat scathing analysis of Christianity. The religions that have derived from it are defined by two core values, brotherhood and humility. The first is positive, observes Veblen, but is not unique to Christianity as other value systems also claim it as their own. This is surely a trait shared by all humanity, again according to him. As for the second core value, which is more specific to Christianity, Veblen sees it as allowing the powerful to ensure the obedience of those they exploit. It is an ethics of subjection for the dominated.

In this respect, Judaism is not spared. It too is linked to predatory institutions, those that prevent the emergence of genuine solidarity between people in the same way as Islam or even Christianity. Being in favor of “coercive control and kindly tutelage”29 of the community, these three religions openly adopt the perspective of those who are dominant. The values that they convey tend to maintain the gap between the upper classes and the rest of the population. While this does not bring about any basic changes, Veblen does moderate his views on Christianity slightly by suggesting that it has toned down its teachings since the Middle Ages. This is not the case with Judaism, which is probably more disadvantaged by its supposed standstill than by its precedence and appears on the last rung of the Veblenian ladder of these religions judged to be harmful. “No degree of imputed inhumanity in the most high God,” Veblen remarks, “will stand in the way of a god-fearing and astute priesthood volubly ascribing to him all the good qualities that should grace an elderly patriarchal gentleman of the old school; so that even his most infamous atrocities become ineffably meritorious and are dispensed of his mercy.”30 Veblen then immediately specifies in a footnote that he is thinking of Judaism.31 Clearly he regrets that these religions hold a lot of sway, while adding with a hint of pride that the countries of Northern Europe “were the last to accept the patriarchal mythology of the semites.”32

Although he addresses socioeconomic questions through the prism of culture, Veblen shows a clear interest in the natural sciences. This is attested by his reference to Darwinism, which he raises to the level of an epistemological revolution.33 In his mind, the interpretation of natural phenomena is correlated with the way people develop their economic activities. In the machine age, with all trace of any idea of a final cause pushed aside, modern science must be evolutionary, pitting institutions in motion against one another, and with the results of their interaction not being predetermined – in accordance with the canons espoused by Darwinism. Thus, although the conditioning of the machine process seems to spread inexorably throughout the entire society in the industrial economies, there is no guarantee that ultimately the privileges of the ruling classes will disappear. The predatory mindset is likely to retain its hold – through war, for example. The “triumph of imbecile institutions”34 is a very plausible scenario.

Veblen’s relationship with the natural sciences goes beyond a simple metaphor. His thoughts are constantly nourished by them, with anthropology being the main route into them. Based on the work of the “eminent” Georges Vacher de Lapouge, Veblen argues that this discipline should radically transform economic analysis.35 Since the beginning of the 19th century when polygenists, postulating a plurality of human races, were opposed by monogenists, defending the uniqueness of the human race, debate among anthropologists has undergone many changes.36 Inspired by social Darwinism, the current of “anthroposociology” with Carlos Closson, Otto Ammon, and Vacher de Lapouge in the forefront claims that there is an existential struggle between races. Other authors such as Edward B. Tylor or Franz Boas center their analysis on a new concept, that of culture, leaving out the notion of race. In their review of the authors who influenced Veblen, Ann Jennings and William Waller include all of these.37 There is no contradiction here because the boundary between nature and culture was very porous at the time. For many, the words people, ethnic group, or race were almost interchangeable, and Veblen was one of them. 

To make his egalitarian stance compatible with his interest in natural science publications which often produce a hierarchy of races, Veblen’s answer is to neutralize the theoretical aspects that may conflict with his overall vision. For example, while he has no hesitation in using the notion of “instinct,” he does specify, first, that no physiological meaning should be attached to it, and second, that people have had the same instincts since the early days of humanity.38 These are predispositions that are constants; only culture can account for social changes. Veblen refers to the typology of races devised by anthroposociologists. He mentions European racial types, such as dolicho-blond and brachycephalic brunet, either in his major books or in texts dealing specifically with these questions such as “The Blond Race and the Aryan Culture.” For Veblen, however, these developments regarding races relate to ancient times and provide only supplementary information. These are signs of erudition, not keys to understanding.     

In order to give an account of current problems, Veblen considers that races are no longer relevant because populations intermingle, an inevitable phenomenon of hybridization. When he censures Germany, which he sees as having been fundamentally aggressive during the First World War, he dismisses any explanation of a racial nature: “Now it happens, unfortunately for the invidious insistence on purity of race, that… there is no community extant, great or small, that is made up even approximately of pure-bred blonds to the exclusion of other racial elements.”39 As virulent as it is, his attack is limited only to cultural factors. In IPEJ, Veblen adduces the same argument of interbreeding to reject any interpretation of a racist nature. With mixed marriages, the Jews have become biologically mingled with other peoples.

A comparison between Veblen and Vacher de Lapouge is revealing. Both men share views with respect to races. The French anthropologist highlights the role of population migrations. He argues against the xenophobic nationalists of the time as each nation is composed of a mixture of various races;40 hence the battle to defend national borders loses all meaning. Although Veblen agrees with this notion, the conclusions that the two theorists draw from this premise are diametrically opposed. For Vacher de Lapouge, the race struggle continues beyond state boundaries. It results in a selectionist moral code, a eugenics project, and the success of the Aryan race must be ensured at the global level. For Veblen, this is not a desirable solution in itself. He accuses the Aryans, like the Jews, of being predators. In his view, the dolicho-blonds of northern Europe, whom he praises as the model of a united and peaceful society, were not originally descended from the Aryan race but from a mutation of the Mediterranean one.41 But, more significantly, this type of analysis applies only to ancient times; at present, the mixing of populations renders any interpretation in terms of race irrelevant. The analysis must be cultural, and in the case of the Jews, it is not limited to religion; their economic activities are an added aspect that Veblen holds against them.

The Jews in the Economy

Cultural anthropologists at the end of the 19th century disagreed on the role that should be attributed to history.42 Tylor favored the hypothesis of a continuity from primitive cultures to the most advanced cultures; he rejected the split between so-called savages and civilized peoples. He considered that all cultures go through the same stages of development. There may occasionally be dissimilarities linked to cultural dissemination, but their universalism implies historical uniformity. For his part, Boas insisted on the notion of cultural relativism; there was no single path. He was therefore wary of the concept of evolution. In the end, there seems little doubt that the two anthropologists left a mark on Veblen. The ideas that there is no single but several cultures and that the meaning behind a model of human behavior depends on its cultural environment are present in the Veblenian analytical framework. At the same time, historical development is also one of its essential components. As Jennings and Waller point out, Veblen appears to be more indebted to Tylor: his three basic stages – savagery, barbarism, and civilization – shaped Veblen’s periodization.43

Veblenian historical development comprises four stages: the savage era, the barbarian era, the era of handicraft, and the era of the machine. For the dawn of the savage era, Veblen goes back as far as prehistoric times. Human communities are characterized by a strong cohesion, resulting in almost no distinction between men and women, between old and young. Economic activities are not much differentiated. In this peaceful setting, private property does not exist.44 Technological progress leads to a relative abundance of goods which eventually stirs up envy. Solidarity within the community breaks apart; moreover, other groups are lured in by the surplus that is generated. This change in mentality marks the start of barbarism, which ends at approximately the end of the Middle Ages with the arrival of the handicraft era.

Veblen then divides Tylor’s period of civilization in two. His purpose is to show that capitalism is an extension of barbarism. The peaceful handicraft era does indeed mark the beginning of the technological progress seen in the era of the machine, which is associated with the Industrial Revolution, but at the same time, it is based on private property, which is inherited from barbarism. This predatory institution is the foundation of modern capitalism. In short, the savage era is a “paradise lost” that technological development made inevitable but which will perhaps be regained thanks to a “cunning of technology.” As already mentioned, Veblen hoped that the discipline of the machine would make people aware of the fact that they must stand together and not compete one with another. 

According to Veblen, “The substantial difference between the peaceable and the predatory phase of culture, therefore, is a spiritual difference, not a mechanical one.”45 Although the role of technology predominates in his approach to history, the transition from one stage to another is ultimately explained by a change in mentalities. This perspective implies a gradual development.46 Veblen investigates these long pivotal periods when behavioral patterns began to change. His aim is to describe the practices that reflect the shift that was taking place. The transition that we are interested in is the one that occurred between the savage era and barbarism. How was it that the preference for solidarity, for harmony, receded and gave way to selfish, predatory behavior? It seemed to Veblen that the Jewish people, or more precisely their way of life during these ancient times, was partly responsible for this regrettable situation.

To trace the emergence of barbarism, Veblen turns the spotlight on the Middle East and, despite uncertain dating issues, he describes a series of evocative sequences.47 Considerable technological progress was recorded during the Neolithic period. As populations settled, they were able to develop agriculture and raise livestock. Despite improvements in the living conditions, the inhabitants of a given region did not all follow this route. There were still groups of nomads, attracted by accumulated wealth, which they strove to acquire by force. Previously theft had been sporadic and regarded as an anomaly. In these pastoral societies to which the Jews belonged, it became a behavioral norm. These abuses were all the more likely to occur because livestock is a transportable good which grows naturally.48 The contrast between the settled, industrious community and the pastoral society that Veblen describes as “parasitic”49and set to become all-conquering could not be greater. The link that he draws between these societies that have lived by stealing livestock and the pecuniary institutions of modern capitalism is also an etymological one: in Latin, pecunia, meaning wealth or money, comes from pecus, meaning beast or herd. 

Veblen adds that the belief system of these predatory peoples was adapted to their practices. Their religion “seems in no case to have been carried up to the consummate stage of despotic monotheism during the nomadic-pastoral phase of their experience, but to have been worked out to a finished product presently after they had engaged on a career of conquest.”50 It is not only the Jews who are used as an example: the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians, and the Hyksos appear in his list of peoples with a so-called barbarian culture. Yet Veblen inevitably comes back to the Jews. The readers he is addressing, whose culture is Christian, are familiar with the biblical narrative. In addition to this common reference, there is another reason for this focus on the Jewish people. Veblen observes that all these peoples met a disastrous fate: they were eventually conquered by stronger peoples and disappeared from the face of the earth. The Jews, however, were an exception; they were scattered among the nations but continued to exist as a people. If they are dear to Veblen, it is also as the last living fossils from the dawn of barbarism. He does, however, designate the Jews as scapegoats. They are not responsible for the evils of capitalism, and he does not insist unduly on their culpability.

Veblen does not always cite his sources. Regarding the history of the Jewish people in ancient times, the Bible seems to be the basis for his analysis. His view is based on the “documentary hypothesis,” a theory from the second half of the 19th century which states that the Pentateuch is an assortment of documents written at different times – with each part of the sacred text meant to fulfill a political or an apologetic function.51 The Jahvist document, which supports the kingdom of Judah, is characterized by the presence of a vengeful God. It is distinct from the Elohist document, which insists on the moral dimension and takes the side of the kingdom of Israel. Veblen occasionally relies on these documents. When he deals with the belief systems that correspond to a nonviolent, agricultural economy, he illustrates his arguments with “Elohistic elements” from the Hebrew sacred texts.52 Meanwhile, the “Jahvistic elements” are associated with the religions of the peoples marked by a barbarian culture.53 When he compares the predatory institutions of the modern era with those of the early days of barbarism, he refers to the archaic “Levitical cleanness.”54

According to Veblen, a mindset of domination over other people always ends up spreading within the conquering group. Distinctions emerge also between members of the same community. The social organization becomes hierarchical, based on principles such as birthright or the supremacy of religious power. When they lived on their own land, the Jews were no exception to this rule. The privileged status of the Levites concerns Veblen to such an extent that when, in a totally different context, he describes the strategy of a man seeking to benefit from greater social recognition, he speaks about a “Levitical corrective.”55 Once the Jews had to leave their land and were scattered in a Diaspora, their economic activities almost disappear from Veblen’s writings. Nonetheless, even though the passages on that subject are rare, their global consistency is significant.  

First, in a footnote where he maintains that a warlike policy carried out over a period of time leads to population selection, with the most belligerent elements tending to disappear in favor of individuals with other qualities, he uses the Jews as an example. This is the only time, to our knowledge, that Veblen mentions the transition between their life in their own territory and the condition of exile.56 Moreover, IPEJ may be exploited further. While this article focuses on the intellectual Jews who escape their culture, it also offers an indirect perspective on the other Jews, that is, the majority of the Jewish people. Since Veblen claims that the fundamental aspects of Jewish culture have survived through the centuries, we can infer that it remained essentially predatory in the Diaspora while trends toward discrimination took paths other than war. To identify these, the transition from barbarian times to the handicraft era provides some indirect but plausible answers.

In his explanation of the way in which capitalism developed since the Middle Ages, Veblen bases his argument on Werner Sombart, one of the authors to whom he most often refers.57 He concurs with the German researcher in identifying the key factors that caused the birth of the handicraft era.58 Indeed, in the role that Veblen attributes to guilds of craftsmen and petty trade, Sombart’s influence is apparent. There are also notable similarities in how the two thinkers regard the transfer of the main centers of economic activity from Italy to southern Germany, then to the Netherlands, and finally to Britain. Sombart insisted that the Jews were drawn to trade: “The little peddler, the second-hand dealer and Nathan Rothschild, they all worked in trade, each one in his own domain and with the means at their disposal.”59 In his view, this tendency stemmed from a tremendous “acquisitiveness”60 encouraged by religion. Although Veblen does not confirm it explicitly, there are indications that many of the descriptions of the Jews’ economic activities in Sombart’s work are relevant to him.

The transposition of predatory behavior patterns, which are no longer the result of conquest by force, corresponds exactly to the practice of commercial trades. With the institution of private property, it becomes possible to grow rich, to accumulate goods. When he tries to demonstrate that the Zionist project is not economically viable, Veblen echoes Sombart: “The days of Solomon and the caravan trade which underlay the glory of Solomon are long past”61 – a sentence that reveals his perception of widespread economic activities among the Jews, regardless of any possible mockery. For him, the Jews are firmly associated with the business of trade. As in the intellectual professions, they are clearly overrepresented.    

Despite these convergences, Veblen is in serious disagreement with Sombart. According to him, there is no continuity between the handicraft era, namely the first stages of capitalism, and financial capitalism.62 Contrary to Sombart, he does not place the cradle of economic modernity in continental Europe but in the British Isles, where there were relatively few Jews. Even though it will become distorted later, it is the principle of natural rights that is the foundation of business enterprise and of the contemporary era.63 It is no coincidence that Veblen produced no review of Sombart’s book, where the Jews are presented as the real driving force of capitalism, including in the United States. For him, they cannot be incriminated for the current economic dysfunctions; Jews do not embody modernity but the past. This raises questions, however, about their possible future.    

A Dead End                                                                   

Veblen does not support the political option offered by Zionism. Although he does not state it so directly in IPEJ, his hostility stems from a position of principle: he is opposed to the affirmation of any national identity that would involve the creation of a state. Borders are artificial barriers between people. In his opinion, “patriotism is evidently a spirit of particularism, of aliency and animosity between contrasted groups of persons; it lives on invidious comparison, and works but in mutual hindrance and jealousy between nations.”64 Veblen does not deny that a feeling of solidarity, of sincere affection may be associated with it. The “common man,” the subject of his concerns, may even be persuaded by the ideal of a group that comes together to share a common culture. Besides, the acquisition of a form of legitimacy is essential to patriotism. This usually involves a request for an “equitable opportunity for the commonplace peaceable citizen,”65 which unfortunately sometimes carries within it the seeds of conflict between rights that are allegedly legitimate. The common man then runs the risk of being dragged by “a call to self-defense, under the rule of Live and let live”66 into a war that is beyond his understanding.

In general, the “right of ‘self-determination’…means the self-aggrandisement of each and several at the cost of the rest, by a reasonable use of force and fraud.”67 It cloaks a desire for differentiation, in other words, predatory intentions. Veblen has clearly anticipated any objection that could be leveled against him: How should a people react when it is really being attacked, when expressing the feeling of being assaulted is not a simple justification for fighting? For Veblen, it is better not to defend oneself. To justify this position, he presents China as a model: over the centuries it has been invaded by numerous powers and has not sought to resist. It is still in existence even though successive enemy occupying forces have come to see their empires collapse.68 When the dominant power behaves in a civilized manner, the subjugated peoples live peaceful and happy lives, like the Scots and the Welsh who are under British rule yet without trying to free themselves.69 This analysis applies to legally constituted states as well as to oppressed national minorities.

This viewpoint also encompasses the fact that atrocities can be committed by a particularly brutal sovereign: even in a situation where the common man of the people in question is in distress, it is vital that he does not give in to the instinctive temptation to revolt. In this way, Veblen justifies the “manhandling”70 of the Armenians by the Ottoman Empire, which committed massacres against their population. In any case, ultimate independence would certainly not have improved the situation for them. When he considers the First World War, he notes that the Belgians and the Serbs, who had their own states, suffered no less than the Armenians. Veblen asserts clearly that the situation of the Jews is similar to that of the Armenians. The lesson to be learned is that, when times are hard, the only solution is to wait until the storm has passed. His dream of doing away completely with borders that separate peoples does comport well with the response advocated by Zionism.

However, in IPEJ, Veblen does not put forward his internationalism in his rejection of Zionism, adducing economic factors instead. In his view, the Jews will never be able to support themselves on their land. He maintains, fairly laconically, that because of the geographical location of their country and especially its small size, that will never be possible. This was not the first time he had argued that to achieve economic modernity a state had to have a certain size. Veblen is not surprised by the economic stagnation of Scandinavian countries in the handicraft era. At the same time, he does not consider this matter to be an insurmountable obstacle: Switzerland is more developed economically than Russia because it has successfully integrated with the international industrial community.

Veblen’s pessimism about Zionism is related not so much to a question of scale but to his doubts about the ability of the Jewish people to take part in the international division of labor, to become a member of the industrial community. His image of a caravan of merchants illustrates this skepticism. Throughout the centuries, the Jews have been dedicated to professions in trade; their culture turned them away from productive activities. In IPEJ, Veblen does not mention the agricultural communities that were spreading in Palestine, especially the kibbutzim, while, at the same moment, he firmly supports Bolshevism.71 However, by opposing capitalism and advocating solidarity and equality within the group, the kibbutz is close to his values. It is true that the first community of this type had been created only ten years earlier; in 1919, the kibbutz did not yet play a prominent role in the Zionist movement. Nevertheless, even between IPEJ and his death in 1929, when the kibbutz had begun to gain momentum,72 Veblen remained silent on the subject. It is likely that he was less interested in the economic achievements of Jewish immigrants in Palestine under the banner of the Zionist ideals than in the Jewish achievements of ancient times. The aim of the Zionists was to put an end to exile, to emancipate the Jews through labor, especially by working the land. Veblen misinterprets their intentions,  seeming to imply that they were seeking to revive their ancestral traditions: “When and in so far as the Jewish people in this way turn inward on themselves, their prospective contribution to the world’s intellectual output should, in the light of the historical evidence, fairly be expected to take on the complexion of Talmudic lore.”73

Veblen sometimes exaggerates to make a point. Be that as it may, this quotation corresponds to the crux of his thinking.  A prisoner of his prejudices, he is unable to consider the Jews other than in the context of commerce or of dated religious practice. He has not absorbed the fact that the founding father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, and his followers gave religion only a symbolic function in the Jewish state.74

If Zionism was leading to a dead end, the life of Jews in the Diaspora was not promising either. Veblen implies that his model of the avant-garde Jew will continue in Europe. In other words, the gulf between modernity and the Jewish culture was unlikely to narrow since otherwise the flow of pioneer Jews would dry up;75 the cultural lag would not disappear. Regardless of the Jewish question, Veblen’s works discuss shocks produced by the encounter between cultures. There are many examples; the one closest to the Jewish question is that of Germany. For the citizens of this country, an entry into economic modernity is possible thanks to the proximity to productive activities that tend to eradicate predatory tendencies. If this does not occur, then Veblen predicts that Germany, with its advanced industrial capabilities, will pose a major threat to peace even after the First World War.76

Veblen does not consider the same scenario regarding the Jews. Nowhere does he suggest that the interplay of opposing forces should result in their adapting to the ideals of modernity. Everything happens as if the discipline of the machine cannot reach the majority of the Jewish population. In dealing with Germany, Veblen asserts that while the ruling classes, who are the farthest from production, need more time for their mentality to develop, change is nevertheless underway despite the upheaval caused by the war. Since the Jews were supposed to be involved in economic activities related to trade, that is, at a considerable distance from industrial work, it is understandable that their adaptation should be particularly slow, but not that they should be closed off so completely. One explanation emerges: if the gap between Jewish society and the modern world remains substantial, then it is necessarily because the Jews are culturally closed in on themselves and do not interact with their environment.77

Put another way, it is possible – in Veblen’s view – that the ways of thinking brought about by the Industrial Revolution saved the German people by enabling them to abandon their archaic heritage, but they will presumably have no effect on the Jewish people. The underlying moral behind Veblen’s analysis is clear: by choosing to remain isolated in order to preserve their traditions, the Jews have condemned themselves to represent forever before humanity the ideal type of barbarian culture. In a world open to cultural exchanges, to solidarity between individuals and between nations, a plausible manifestation of the requirements imposed by industrial machinery, the persistence of institutions considered to be predatory should arouse a certain hostility. Under these conditions, the notorious “adversity” faced by the Jewish people is likely to increase even more.  


Taking fragments scattered throughout Veblen’s work and putting them into perspective sheds light on his view of the Jewish question and helps one to better decipher his IPEJ. While his fierce universalism protects Veblen from any accusation of anti-Semitism, his position is definitely hostile. This negativity is explained by the fact that the Jewish people symbolize for him a rejection of values such as equality and solidarity. In contrast, the Jews represent the rationale of predation: a narrow conception of the group, along with economic parasitism as opposed to the efficiency achieved by industry. In a theoretical model that claims to be evolving, with forces in perpetual motion, strangely the Jews embody a form of cultural inertia, a static position rooted in the past. This is why Veblen was not inclined to grasp the transformations affecting the Jewish people in the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.78 In his analysis, their cultural traits were supposed to be unchanging. He presumed a continuity between the Jew of yesterday and the Jew of today.

Veblen’s perception of institutions, based on the notion of customs and hence implying a long timescale, does not leave space for cultural revolutions until the population is fully accustomed to them. The paradox is that Veblen’s premise – that Jews live locked away in a state of backwardness – is likely to lead to effects – such as their leaving the ghetto – which his analytical framework is not really able to cope with. Veblen discerns the Jewish pioneers already outside and the traditional Jews at ease inside.   He does not take into account the multitudes who have leaped into the arms of Zionism or communism, or even those who attempt to blend in with Gentile society when their host country shows tolerance toward them. In the end, by striving to demonstrate his central thesis, Veblen overlooks other arguments which could have strengthened his overall viewpoint. Attacks against Jews could have been used as proof that the patriotism which he abhors can have disastrous effects, while the Jewish experience of the Diaspora should have supported the internationalism that he hopes for. In sum, Veblen had not escaped the prejudices of his own culture.

* * *


1 Melvin R. Reder, “The Anti-Semitism of Some Eminent Economists,” History of Political Economy 32, 4 (2000): 833-56. 

2 Thomas C. Leonard, “‘More Merciful and Not Less Effective’: Eugenics and American Economics in the Progressive Era,” History of Political Economy 35, 4 (2003):  687-712.

3 Gwendolyn Mink, Old Labor and New Immigrants in American Political Development: Union, Party, and State, 1875-1920 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986).

4 Leonard Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

5 Tiziana Foresti, “Thorstein Veblen on the Intellectual Pre-eminence of Jews: Beyond the Myth of Veblen’s ‘Social Marginality,’” Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology 32 (2015): 63–81.

6 Thorstein B. Veblen, “The Intellectual Pre-eminence of Jews in Modern Europe,” Political Science Quarterly 33, 2 (1919): 33-42.

7 Joseph Dorfman, Thorstein Veblen and His America, 7th ed. (Clifton, NJ: Kelley, 1972).

8 Rick Tilman, Thorstein Veblen and His Critics, 1891-1963 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992).

9 Stephen Edgell, “Rescuing Veblen from Valhalla: Deconstruction and Reconstruction of a Sociological Legend,” British Journal of Sociology 47, 4 (1996): 627-42.

10 Helen Fein, “Dimensions of Antisemitism: Attitudes, Collective Accusations and Actions,” in Helen Fein, ed., The Persisting Question: Sociological Perspectives and Social Contexts of Modern Antisemitism, Current Research on Antisemitism (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1987), 167-85.

11 Thorstein B. Veblen, The Instinct of Workmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts (New York: Macmillan, 1914).

12 Thorstein B. Veblen, The Vested Interests and the Common Man, 4th ed. (New York: Viking, 1946).

13 Thorstein B. Veblen, “The Place of Science in Modern Civilisation” (1906): 1-31, and “The Evolution of the Scientific Point of View” (1908): 32-55, in The Place of Science in Modern Civilisation (New York: Viking, 1919). 

14 Zvi Y. Gitelman, ed., Religion or Ethnicity? Jewish Identities in Evolution (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers, 2009).

15 To avoid any anachronism, at that time and despite some incidents, it seemed as if the conflict between Jews and Arabs could still be avoided (Walter Laqueur, A History of Zionism: From the French Revolution to the Establishment of the State of Israel [New York: Schocken, 1972]). This is why even settling Jews in Palestine was not one of the problems that the pacifist Veblen identified in /Zionism.       

16 Veblen, IPEJ, 34.

17 Veblen gives no example of this category of Jews. For him, institutions are important, not individuals. At most we can consider that in this set of Jews he included Karl Marx, whom he described as an “unjudaised Jew” (Dorfman, Thorstein Veblen, 242).

18 Veblen, IPEJ, 37.

19 Isaiah 42:6.

20 Thorstein B. Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (New York: Macmillan, 1899).

21 The Jewish overrepresentation in the intellectual professions will not be discussed here; see Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein, The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012) for a much more positive interpretation focusing on education. It is enough to say here that the tone of his article demonstrates that Veblen was far from putting the Jews on a pedestal.

22 It is well-known that hatred of Jews has often acted as a social cement, promoting social cohesion and diverting attention from real problems (Léon Poliakov, Histoire de l’antisémitisme [Paris: Calmann-Levy, 1955, 1961, 1968]). Veblen, who is a critic of all unhealthy forms of solidarity and chauvinism, for example, in sport and in warlike patriotism (Veblen, Theory of the Leisure Class), misses an excellent opportunity to illustrate his remarks with anti-Semitism.

23 Veblen, IPEJ, 34.

24 Ibid., 41-42.

25 Veblen, “Evolution,” 39.

26 Veblen, “Place of Science.”

27 Thorstein B. Veblen [1913] 1990, “The Blond Race and the Aryan Culture,” in Place of Science,  477-96, and Instinct of Workmanship.

28 Ibid.

29 Thorstein  B. Veblen, “Christian Morals and the Competitive System” (1910), in Leo Ardzrooni, ed., Essays in Our Changing Order (New York: Viking, 1934), 208.

30 Veblen, Instinct of Workmanship, 163.

31 His exact words were: “Witness the alleged dealings of Jahve with his chosen people and the laudation bestowed on Him by His priests for ‘conduct unbecoming a gentleman’” (ibid., 163). 

32 Ibid., 201.

33 Veblen, “Evolution.”

34 Veblen, Instinct of Workmanship, 25.

35 Thorstein B. Veblen, “Why Is Economics Not an Evolutionary Science?” (1898), in The Place of Science, 56-81.

36 George W. Stocking, Jr., Race, Culture, and Evolution (New York: Free Press, 1968).

37 Ann Jennings and William Waller, “The Place of Biological Science in Veblen’s Economics,” History of Political Economy 30, 2 (1998): 189-217. 

38 Veblen, Instinct of Workmanship.

39 Thorstein B. Veblen, Imperial Germany and the Industrial Revolution (New York: Huebsch, 1915), 6-7.

40 Pierre-André Taguieff, “Sélectionnisme et socialisme dans une perspective aryaniste: théories, visions et prévisions de Georges Vacher de Lapouge (1854-1936),” Mil neuf cent, Eugénisme et socialisme 18 (2000): 7-51.

41 Veblen, “Blond Race.” Veblen was apparently proud of his ethnic origins and had more than just an interest in Scandinavian culture. According to Isador Lubin, he was even a  “Norwegian ‘chauvinist’” (Stephen Edgell, Veblen in Perspective: His Life and Thought [London: Routledge, 2001], 63). Lubin was a former student, colleague, and friend of Veblen. He was also Jewish and active in his community. However, a personal relationship with a Jew should not be confused with a negative bias toward Judaism or even anti-Semitism.

42 Stocking, Race, Culture, and Evolution

43 Jennings and Waller, “Place of Biological Science.”

44 Veblen, Theory of the Leisure Class.

45 Ibid., 12.

46 Colin Loader, Jeffrey Waddoups, and Rick Tilman, “Thorstein Veblen, Werner Sombart and the Periodization of History,” Journal of Economic Issues 25, 2 (1991): 421-29.

47 Until that time, and in particular in The Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen described the first stages of barbarism, such as the appropriation of women, in a rather evasive way. Without referring to specific events, he suggested that “a peaceable stage of primitive culture is in great part drawn from psychology rather than from ethnology”  ([1899] 1994, 13).

48 Veblen, Instinct of Workmanship.

49 Ibid., 166.

50 Ibid., 167.

51 Joel S. Baden, The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012).

52 Veblen, “Place of Science,” 10.

53 Veblen, “Evolution,” 48.

54 Thorstein B. Veblen, The Theory of Business Enterprise (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1904), 68.

55 Thorstein B. Veblen, An Inquiry into the Nature of Peace and the Terms of Its Perpetuation (New York: Macmillan, 1917), 327.

56 Veblen, Theory of Business Enterprise, 396.

57 Thus, he reviewed some books by Sombart for the Journal of Political Economy. He is often full of praise, even comparing Sombart’s intellectual depth with that of Karl Marx (Thorstein B. Veblen, “Der Modern Kapitalismus. By Werner Sombart” [1903], in Joseph Dorfman, ed., Essays, Reviews and Reports [Clifton, NJ: Kelley, 1973], 498-506).

58 Veblen, Instinct of Workmanship, 232.

59 Werner Sombart, Le bourgeois: contribution à l’histoire morale et intellectuelle de l’homme économique moderne, trans. Samuel Jankélévitch (Paris: Payot, 1926): 72.

60 Ibid., 39-40.

61 Veblen, IPEJ, 34.

62 Werner Sombart, Die Juden und das Wirtschaftsleben. (Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot, 1911).

63 Veblen, Theory of Business Enterprise and “Der Modern Kapitalismus. By Werner Sombart.”

64 Veblen, Inquiry, 38.

65 Ibid., 37.

66 Ibid.

67 Veblen, Vested Interests, 117.

68 Veblen, Inquiry, 129-30.

69 Veblen, Vested Interests, 148.

70 Ibid., 149.

71 Thorstein B. Veblen, “Bolshevism Is a Menace – To Whom?” (1919), in Ardzrooni, Essays in Our Changing Order, 399-414.

72 Degania, the first kibbutz, was used more and more as a showcase. It was visited by some well-known figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Einstein, and Masaryk.

73 Veblen, IPEJ, 42.

74 Laqueur, History of Zionism.

75 Veblen, IPEJ.

76 Veblen, Imperial Germany.

77 While demonstrating that this is only a popular misconception and that Jewish law, which is constantly changing, has even taken into account these frequent and regular exchanges with Christians, Joseph Shatzmiller clears Veblen indirectly by stating that the isolated nature of the Jewish belief system has long been a widespread assumption among theorists of the Jewish question. See his book Cultural Exchange: Jews, Christians, and Art in the Medieval Marketplace (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013).

78 Shmuel Ettinger, “The Modern Period” (1969), in Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson, ed., A History of the Jewish People (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976), 727-1096.