In this analysis of racialism in late-nineteenth-century France, antisemitism is studied not in isolation but in its social context, as an indicator and symptom of profound social change. As anticapitalism, for example, antisemitism expressed hostility to modern economic forms and 'the rule of money'; as a kind of socialism, it expressed opposition to the establishment without calling the social hierarchy into question; as a kind of nationalism and as racialism, it created a sense of belonging, in opposition to the Jews and to other supposedly alien groups within French society. Other aspects studied in the book are the religious, the sexual, and the cultural and intellectual, in which antisemitism again acted as the vehicle for the expression of the fears inspired by and in reaction to the experience of rapid change, which was seen as a fundamental decadence.
Always the supposed action of the Jews supplied an explanation of otherwise inexplicable phenomena. Analysis of involvement in the Dreyfus Affair, which dramatized antisemitism and gave it new appeal and legitimacy, and of the antisemitic movement and its activities, indicates which social groups were particularly attracted to antisemitism: students, the clergy and Catholics generally, shopkeepers, army officers, members of the liberal professions, and the aristocracy. In each case, particular anxieties and grievances were articulated through a common ideology. There is little evidence that antisemitism was prompted by any experience of actual co-existence with any Jewish communities, except in the east of France; the choice of Jews as scapegoats has, rather, historical and religious explanations. Antisemitism at this time was propagated by 'intellectuals' through newspapers, pamphlets, and books; the new cultural media were used to fashion an abstract ideology from much older folk beliefs. The antisemitic movement of the time had no coherent programme. It did advocate various measures, culminating in extermination, against the Jews, but this was rhetoric, not practical policy.