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Spinoza, exile and return

Thursday, 26 Jul 2018

Spinoza on Dr John Dunn. The Marrano Jews in Amsterdam had suffered a huge economic loss and massive decline in social status. Before their expulsion from Spain and Portugal they enjoyed a privileged standing as part of a triumvirate of beneficiaries, which also included the landed nobility and Venetian financiers.1In the borderless chaos of the pre-nation state Europe, this proto-oligarchical tripartite group divided up the social surplus between itself.

For many centuries, the Jews continued to be the principal commercial intermediaries between the East and the West. Spain in particular progressively became a centre of Jewish life. The Arab postmaster in Spain, ‘Ibn-Kordadbeh, in the Book of Routes (857-874), mentions the ‘Radamite Jews who speak Persian, Roman, Arab, and the Frankish, Spanish and Slav languages. They voyage from the Occident to the Orient, and from the Orient to the Occident, now by landand now by sea. They bring from the Occident eunuchs, women, slaves, boys, silk, furs and swords. They embark in the land of the Franks, on the Western sea and sail to Farama (Pelustum) ... They proceed to Sind, India and China. On returning they are laden with musk, aloes, camphor, cinnamon and other products of Eastern lands. Some set sail for Constantinople in order to sell their merchandise there...’2

In combination with restrictions imposed upon the nobility by the crown, the expulsion of the Jews, who lived as crypto-Jews, or conversos, under a nominal Christian conversion, was intended to staunch the haemorrhage of surplus value out of Spain in payments for weaponry, luxury goods and associated borrowing, which went, ultimately, into the coffers of Venetian financiers. The burden of producing the surplus to pay for usurious loans was borne entirely by the producer class of serfs. Wealth was draining out of Spain and, if national sovereign control over the economy by the crown was to be achieved, the fruits of exploitation had to be contained within national borders. In short, the rigorous imposition of the Inquisition was not the result of some petty prejudice. Horrific it may have been, but there was an economic imperative to the movement too, which is never investigated.

As Banking interests transferred from Venice to Antwerp and then to Amsterdam, the Marranos saw a new base from which they could ply their trades freely. Portuguese conversos first sailed to Amsterdam in 1593, Spinoza’s antecedents amongst them, and promptly reconverted toJudaism. In 1598 permission was granted to build a synagogue, and in 1615 an ordinance for the admission and government of the Jews was passed. As a community of exiles, the Portuguese Jews of Amsterdam were highly proud of their identity. The bitterness of their fall from grace in Spain and Portugal would be long-lasting.

This was the exile that counted, not the original myth of expulsion from Palestine. This was the diaspora that mattered, having an enormous historical impact upon the modern world.

In the hands of Isaac Luria, rabbi and Jewish mystic, exile itself became the primary means of understanding the condition of humanity and Divinity. His kabbalistic mystical system spread quickly and was ubiquitous in the Jewish communities of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, testimony to how deeply the condition of exile was felt.

In the hands of Spinoza, Lurianic Kabbalah would become a philosophy of exile and return, but with a self-serving economic edge to it.


1 See my book Renaissance: Counter-Renaissance, Study Press, London, 2016

2 A. Leon, The Jewish Question 2, https://www.marxists.org/subject/jewish/leon/ch2b.htm#92

© John Dunn.







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