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G. K. Chesterton and the Stereotype of “the Jewish Bolshevik”
In a previous report I looked at the stereotype of the so-called greedy Jew in G. K. Chesterton’s fictional and journalistic discourse. In this report I will look at the stereotype of the “Jewish Bolshevik” in his discourse.
In his essay on G. K. Chesterton’s so-called “philosemitism,” William Oddie argues that Chesterton could not have been an antisemite because on a number of occasions he defended Jews from antisemitism . William Oddie presented a diary entry, dated 5 January 1891, which stated that Chesterton felt so strongly about some vicious acts of cruelty to a Jewish girl in Russia that he was inclined to “knock some-body down”. He also quotes from letters by Chesterton’s alter-ego, Guy Crawford (under which name Chesterton published a series of letters). These were printed in the Debater, the magazine of the “Junior Debating Club,” in 1892. In these letters, Crawford discusses his plans to go to Russia to help “the Hebrews” suffering in pogroms. As William Oddie observed, the series of letters ends with “Guy Crawford” siding with a revolutionary mob in St. Petersburg, and leaping to the defence of a Jewish student. The student, who was killed in this fantastical account, was described by Crawford as “a champion of justice, like thousands who have fallen for it in the dark records of this dark land” . These examples probably provide a fair reflection of Chesterton’s late teenage attitudes. However, his worldview, as with most people, changed over time. An example of his developing worldview can be seen in The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904). According to William Oddie, in this novel, Chesterton expressed “distaste for modernity and progress.” He quite rightly points out that this distaste was “a recent volte-face” . This was not however the only volte-face in Chesterton’s worldview and discourse. He also changed his views about the Jews.
A relatively early and partial manifestation of this volte-face can be found in his novel, Manalive (1912), which reflected his worldview no less than the letters of Guy Crawford. According to the narrator of the story, “wherever there is conflict, crises come in which any soul, personal or racial, unconsciously turns on the world the most hateful of its hundred faces.” In the case of Moses Gould, the Jew in the novel, it was “that smile of the Cynic Triumphant, which has been the tocsin for many a cruel riot in Russian villages or mediaeval towns” . As Cheyette has observed, the construction of the Jew as “innocent victim” seems to have been replaced in Manalive by the Russian Jew’s so-called “racial failure to go beyond his ‘cynical’ rationality” .
The transition from innocent victim in Russia to arch-cynic in Russia was only a partial volte-face. The complete volte-face would come later in the early 1920s, when Chesterton started to claim that the Jews were persecuting Russians. His narratives about the Jewish tyrant were intertwined with stereotypes about the Jewish Bolshevik. For example, in February 1921, Chesterton observed that there was once “a time when English poets and other publicists could always be inspired with instantaneous indignation about the persecuted Jews in Russia. We have heard less about them since we heard more about the persecuting Jews in Russia” . He repeated this narrative about how it was once observed that it was the Jews who were persecuted in Russia, and now it is the Jews who persecute Russians, in What I Saw in America (1922). He stated that “we used to lecture the Russians for oppressing the Jews, before we heard the word Bolshevist and began to lecture them for being oppressed by the Jews” .
There were of course many Jews who were sympathetic towards Socialism and Bolshevism, just as there were many non-Jews who were sympathetic towards Socialism and Bolshevism. There were also many Jews who were antagonistic towards Bolshevism, and it was in no sense a Jewish movement. Chesterton did at least recognise that not all Jews were Bolsheviks, but he claimed that those who were not Bolsheviks were instead rich capitalists. Capitalism, he believed, was merely the other side of Communism. Despite acknowledging that not all Jews were Bolsheviks, he nevertheless painted a picture of Bolshevism as a specifically Jewish movement. For example, Chesterton stated in January 1921 that a study by H. G. Wells contained a “touch of an unreal relativity” when it came to “the Jewish element in Bolshevism.” Wells had observed that whilst many of the Russian exiles were Jewish, there were some who were not Jews. As he had on many other occasions, Chesterton conversely rejected the idea that Jews could be Russians. He clarified that the exiles were Jewish as there were “next to no real Russian exiles.” More significantly, he stated that “it is not necessary to have every man a Jew to make a thing a Jewish movement; it is at least clear that there are quite enough Jews to prevent it from being a Russian movement” . He made a similar claim in August 1920: “There has arisen on the ruins of Russia a Jewish servile State, the strongest Jewish power hitherto known in history. We do not say, we should certainly deny, that every Jew is its friend; but we do say that no Jew is in the national sense its enemy” .
In June 1922, Chesterton expressed his hope that “some day there may be a little realism in the newspapers dealing with public life, as well as in the novels dealing with private life.” He stated that on that day, “we may hear something of the type that really is Bolshevist and generally is Jewish.” In addition to the type that becomes “an atheist from a vague idea that it is part of being a revolutionist,” there was “another type, less common but more clear-headed, who has really become a revolutionist only as part of being an atheist.” According to Chesterton, it was pointless to question this “special sort of young Jew” who exhorted the poor to attack the priest even though the priest was even poorer than they were, because “it was only in order to attack the priest that he ever troubled about the poor.” Chesterton concluded that this type of Jew “knows his own religion is dead; and he hates ours for being alive” .
Referring to Dr Oscar Levy, a prominent Jewish scholar of Nietzsche, Chesterton stated that: “He is a very real example of a persecuted Jew; and he was persecuted, not merely by Gentiles, but rather specially by Jews. He was hounded out of this country in the most heartless and brutal fashion, because he had let the cat out of the bag; a very wild cat out of the very respectable bag of the commercial Jewish bagman. He told the truth about the Jewish basis of Bolshevism, though only to deplore and repudiate it.” However, in response, Oscar Levy promptly wrote to Chesterton, pointing out that he was not driven out of England by Jews at all, and that the Jewish Chronicle and Jewish World had supported him against the decision by the Home Office. Furthermore, Levy argued that Bolshevism was more closely related to Christianity than to Judaism. The idea that the Anglo-Jewish community pulled the strings of the Home Office to arrange for Levy to be removed from Britain was simply a Bellocian and Chestertonian antisemitic invention .
Chesterton never abandoned the myth that Bolshevism was a Jewish movement. For example, whilst criticising “Hitlerism” in 1933, he asserted that the Jews “fattened on the worst forms of Capitalism; and it is inevitable that, on losing these advantages of Capitalism, they naturally took refuge in its other form, which is Communism. For both Capitalism and Communism rest on the same idea: a centralisation of wealth which destroys private property.” And referring to Jews in his autobiography, he stated that “Capitalism and Communism are so very nearly the same thing, in ethical essence, that it would not be strange if they did take leaders from the same ethnological elements” .
Notes for G. K. Chesterton and the Stereotype of “the Jewish Bolshevik”
1. William Oddie, “The Philosemitism of G. K. Chesterton,” in William Oddie, ed., The Holiness of G. K. Chesterton (Leominster: Gracewing, 2010), 124-137.
2. William Oddie, “The Philosemitism of G. K. Chesterton,” 127-128; William Oddie, Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy: The Making of GKC, 1874-1908 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 80-81. The diary entry for 5 January 1891 can be found on page 24 of notebook (1890-1891), ADD MS 73317A, G. K. Chesterton Papers. The letters can be found in G. K. Chesterton [Guy Crawford, pseud.], “The Letters of Three Friends,” Debater III: no.13 (March 1892), 9-11; no.14 (May 1892), 27-29; no.17 (November 1892), 70-71. The letters were published in 1892, not 1891 as William Oddie suggests.
3. William Oddie, Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy: The Making of GKC, 1874-1908, 8.
4. G. K. Chesterton, Manalive (London: Thomas Nelson, 1912), 289.
5. See Bryan Cheyette, Constructions of “the Jew” in English Literature and Society: Racial Representations, 1875-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 192.
6. G. K. Chesterton, “The Statue and the Irishman,” New Witness, 18 February 1921, 102.
7. G. K. Chesterton, What I Saw in America (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1922), 142.
8. G. K. Chesterton, “The Beard of the Bolshevist,” New Witness, 14 January 1921, 22.
9. G. K. Chesterton, “The Feud of the Foreigner,” New Witness, 20 August 1920, 309. Chesterton shared this idea that Bolshevism was a Jewish movement with his close friend Hilaire Belloc. See Hilaire Belloc, The Jews (London: Constable, 1922), 167-185. See also Simon Mayers: The Catholic Federation, Hilaire Belloc, Antisemitism and Anti-Masonry
10. G. K. Chesterton, “The Materialist in the Mask,” New Witness, 30 June 1922, 406-407.
11. See G. K. Chesterton, “The Napoleon of Nonsense City,” G.K.’s Weekly, 14 August 1926, 388-389; Letter from Oscar Levy to the editor of G.K.’s Weekly, “Dr. Oscar Levy and Christianity,” G.K.’s Weekly, 13 November 1926, 126; Letter from Oscar Levy to the editor of G.K.’s Weekly, “Mr. Nietzsche Wags a Leg,” G.K.’s Weekly, 2 October 1926, 44-45. For more on Chesterton and Oscar Levy, see the following blog post, “A look at G. K. Chesterton and Oscar Levy on the ‘169th birthday’ of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche”
12. G. K. Chesterton, “The Judaism of Hitler,” G.K.’s Weekly, 20 July 1933, 311 and G. K. Chesterton, Autobiography (London: Hutchinson, 1936), 76.