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Jews and modern capitalism by Werner Sombart;Jewish Economic Successes, Jewish Habits, Accusations of Cheating, and the Jewish Intellect

jan peczkis|Saturday, June 23, 2018

Werner Sombart was a German economist who published this book in 1911. (My review is based on the 1982 edition). I summarize the relevant points. Far from being anti-Semitic or proto-Nazi, Sombart is careful about accepting accusations against Jews as fact, and he offers a consistently positive "spin" to the Jewish commercial conduct.


This issue may be compared with the glass that is half-empty or half-full. It all depends upon perspective, and both perspectives can simultaneously be valid.

Sombart leaves open the question if Jewish merchants cheated (engaged in universally-recognized unethical conduct) more often than their Christian counterparts. (pp. 144-145). However, the breaking of then-current rules of commerce can itself be a form of cheating, and Sombart gives numerous examples of this.

Jewish merchants were in noncompliance, with the rules of the time, which had required the demarcation of the selling of wares into strictly separate categories. Instead, the Jewish merchants sold a variety of goods in their shops, and this became the eventual prototype of the department store. (p. 135; See also p. 151). Jews believed that prices should not be fixed, and that trade should be untrammeled. (p. 136).

Jewish merchants generally flouted convention by emphasizing a high turnover of low-priced items. (p. 150). Sombart contends that Jews profited by generally selling lower-quality merchandize. (p. 145). [One can also think of the later complaints about “dime store junk”.] At other times, Jews substituted lower-priced materials (e. g, the then-new synthetic dyes for clothing) in order to undercut their competitors. (p. 147). This, too, can be interpreted, according to the prevailing standards of the time, as cheating.

Werner Sombart, in generalizing on Jewish conduct in commerce in general, concludes that, “Still less did they [Jews] have regard to the prevailing code of etiquette in any industry.” (p. 136). It clearly brought the Jews short-term profits and long-term antagonisms.


Sombart points out that the then-objectionable Jewish “new tricks” (p. 152) have become standard practice in commerce. (p. 153). Everybody does them today, and nobody questions them.

One problem with Sombert’s reasoning is that it is based on hindsight thinking. It also neglects the fact that the rules of capitalism, like rules that govern virtually all human conduct, are binding at the time they are in force, regardless of how they eventually evolve. To illustrate: In conventional boxing, kicking an opponent would clearly be an act of cheating. But in the later-emerged kickboxing, it would not. However, the latter could not thereby retroactively serve as an exculpation (or even praise) for the original boxer that had kicked his opponent. Of course, one could spin this rule-breaking by saying that the boxer, who had kicked his opponent, had been progressive for his time. But this would not change the fact that he had been cheating, and that his then-received disqualification had been just.


Going back centuries, Jews did not respect the then-current barriers between States, and they imported raw materials. Jews commonly had international connections, including for commerce (pp. 170-on), and this not only facilitated the Jews’ commercial successes, but also realized the Jews as an international (trans-national) force, even in relatively early times. In more recent times, this led to Jewish commerce as an international force on a vast scale. Sombart comments, “The name Rothschild refers to more than the firm: it stands for the whole of Jewish influence on the Stock Exchange…The first feature to be observed is that, since the appearance of the Rothschilds, the stock market has become international.” (p. 99).


In many different cultures and times, the Jewish practices of aggressive selling were found repulsive by the locals. This work cites additional instances. For example, Sombart comments, “We hear the same tale from a traveler who journeyed in Western Germany about that time. ‘To walk in the streets of those places where there are many Jews has become a nuisance. You are badgered by them every minute and at every turn. You are constantly being asked, “Can I sell you anything? Won’t you buy this, that or the other?”’”


For additional examples of Jewish hard sell techniques in action, which did not exactly create a good reputation for Jews, see my reviews of:

Travels Through Part of the Russian Empire and the Country of Poland: Along the Southern Shores of the Baltic

Poland Under the Dominion of Russia (Classic Reprint)

Poland, the unexplored;



It is commonly supposed that Jews dealt with commerce because other occupations were closed to them. Not so. English King Edward 1 tried unsuccessfully to get Jews to take up non-commercial vocations, and the Prussian government, despite offering a bounty, was also unsuccessful in such attempts in the province of Posen (Poznan, in German-occupied Poland). (p. 310).


Sombart credits the Jewish emphasis on intellect as a major factor in the successes of Jews in commerce. He writes, “The Jews were quite alive to their predominant quality and always recognized that there was a great gulf between their intellectuality and the brute force of their neighbors. One or two sayings popular among Polish Jews express the contrast with no little humor. ‘God help a man against Gentile hands and Jewish heads.’” (p. 260).
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