Karl Marx and most of his followers considered ethnicity a construct of the ruling bourgeoisie in capitalist societies. Ethnicity was designed to divert the attention of the working class away from its economic and political grievances and focus attention on the identities and cultures that divided workers, rather than on the class interests that united them. Thus, the ruling capitalists were said to pit workers of one nation against those of another on the pretext that their primary allegiance should be to the nation, not the class. In World War I, French and British workers on one side, and German and Austrian workers on the other, tried to kill each other out of loyalty to their respective nations. Along with other socialists, Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, viewed this as a tragic strategic error that could occur only because of the shortsightedness and lack of class consciousness of the proletariat. As it matured and was educated by the “vanguard of the proletariat,” the more historically conscious intelligentsia that led the socialist movement, the proletariat would come to realize that its common interests transcended national borders and that all workers together should combat the exploiting capitalists, who themselves were a transnational class.
Logically, after the achievement of a classless society, ethnicity would no longer serve a useful purpose as no ruling class could manipulate it in order to suppress a subjugated one. Thus, in the socialist era ethnicity would disappear, and social class would be the only organizing principle of society.
Rosa Luxembourg delivering a speech at a rally, Stuttgart, Germany, 1907. (Left) portrait of Ferdinand Lassalle (1825–1864), socialist leader and a founder of the predecessor of the Social Democratic Party. (Archiv der Friedrich Ebert-Striftung)
Socialists in the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires were acutely aware of the salience of ethnicity and the existence of national grievances among the peoples inhabiting those multinational entities. Three positions on the “national question” emerged in the socialist camp. The “purist” or “fundamentalist” Marxist position was represented by Rosa Luxemburg, a Jew born in Zamość, Poland, who opposed Polish independence on the grounds that larger territorial units were more efficient than smaller ones so there was no reason to form smaller states out of the shards of empires following their inevitable collapse. Nor was she especially concerned with the plight of her co-ethnics. She is famously reported to have complained, “Why do you come to me with your special Jewish sorrows? I feel just as sorry for the wretched Indian victims in Putamayo, the Negroes in Africa. . . . I cannot find a special corner in my heart for the ghetto. I feel at home in the entire world wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears.”
Austrian Marxists argued that ethnicity would survive capitalism and continue to play an important role even in socialist societies. To accommodate that, schemes of national-cultural autonomy should be developed so that the proletariat could achieve political unity while preserving the cultural autonomy of the ethnic groups within it.
Lenin evolved an intermediate position that acknowledged the importance of ethnicity in the empires and sought to mobilize it in the struggle against the ruling classes. After 1913, while continuing to maintain that nationalism was a petit bourgeois deviation that ultimately had no place in socialist societies, he agreed to autonomy for large, geographically constituted ethnic groups after the socialist revolution had occurred. Indeed, Soviet Russia evolved into a federation of constituent republics based on territorially concentrated groups. However, the Communist Party remained a supranational, hierarchical, and unitary—not federal—party. Since it was superior to the state apparatus, the party center could countermand sub-federal governmental decisions by so instructing its lower organs. Thus, in the extreme case, if the legislature of a Soviet republic exercised its constitutional right to secede from the Soviet Union, the Communist Party in that republic, taking its cues from Moscow, would countermand that decision.
In 1913 Joseph Stalin made his debut as a Marxist theoretician with a pamphlet, Marxism and the National Question. He defined a nation as a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological makeup manifested in a common culture. All these criteria must be present in order for a group to qualify as a nation. Since Jews lacked a common territory, language, and economy, they did not constitute a nation and therefore could have no claim to a state of their own, contrary to what the Zionist movement had postulated. Thus, communism as defined by Lenin and Stalin was inimical to the idea of Jewish nationhood, though after 1918 the Soviet state recognized the Jews as a “nationality” (ethnic group). After World War II, Communist Czechoslovakia and Hungary regarded Jews as a religious group only, maintaining some prewar Central European traditions; Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria allowed both religious and cultural Jewish organizations to function and Yugoslavia, which after 1948 was outside the Soviet Bloc, did the same.
Jews and Radicalism
Students from the Ratmanski School and Factory who have distinguished themselves as highly productive “shock workers” posing beneath a portrait of Lenin and a Yiddish banner reading “Long Live the Komsomol Tribe: The Powerful Reserve Force and Reliable Helper of the Communist Party,” Kiev, USSR, 1920s. (YIVO)
The relative prominence of Jews in left radical movements has been explained in different ways, though all explanations are ultimately speculative. One school of thought maintains that the traditional concern for social justice so eloquently enunciated by the Hebrew prophets was transformed in secular contexts to the struggle for ethnic, racial, religious and economic equality. Jews who may have broken with Judaism and its traditions nevertheless imbibed some of its values and transposed them onto modern politics. The plausibility of this hypothesis is undermined by the empirical observation that Jews who are closest to their tradition are rarely radical and indeed tend toward conservative politics, whereas radical Jews are usually the furthest from Judaism and even from Jewish ethnic identity. Nevertheless, secularized, acculturated, and even assimilated Jews may adopt values and behavior patterns that they learn from their family and surroundings.
Another explanation of the relative popularity of radicalism among Jews is that this is a way they fight antisemitism. In societies where antisemitism is rife, one way of getting rid of it is to change society radically. One of the appeals of socialism was that it promised a classless society where ethnicity and religion, both inventions of the oppressing classes who found them useful tools for controlling the proletariat, would disappear. Logically, ethnic and religious hatreds would also become obsolete. The “Jewish problem” would be solved along with all other ethnic, racial and religious “problems.”
A variant on this theme is that since Jews have been for so long and in so many places an oppressed minority, they have tended to be more sympathetic to other oppressed minorities—whether defined in terms of class, ethnicity, religion or race—than members of dominant groups. Thus, Jews in the United States have continued to vote for the Democratic Party and for candidates closer to the political left long after they have been widely accepted in American society and have achieved high levels of income, education, and social status. It is argued that this behavior will eventually change, though change may be slowed by the continued adherence to traditional values of social justice.
Finally, one may view radicalism as one path to modernity, conceived of as secularity, cosmopolitanism, and the abolition of ethnic and religious distinctions. Some young Jews in Eastern Europe in the first half of the twentieth century thought they could escape the confines and strictures of tradition by becoming Zionists and building a new Jewish society in the Land of Israel; by becoming socialists or Communists and building new societies where ethnicity would be irrelevant; or by emigrating to new countries which offered the promise of social equality but also individual economic advancement and exposure to new ideas and cultures.
It is difficult to say why and how individuals made their choices among these and other alternatives. Often, it was simply the influence or just the example of a sibling or friend who had chosen one of these paths. For others, the choice was made after a long process of investigation and cogitation. We cannot say with any assurance why one sibling would become a Zionist, a second a Bundist socialist, and a third a Communist.
Jews and Communism
Communism was committed to equal rights for Jews, while at the same time opposing Jewish nationhood. Communists rejected Judaism, along with all other religions, as an “opiate of the masses,” and opposed Zionism, Bundism, and other forms of what Communists regarded as Jewish nationalism. Nevertheless, many people associated Jews with communism. Indeed, such different political figures as Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler, mortal enemies in World War II, seemed to share the view that communism was somehow a Jewish conspiracy. Shortly after the Russian Revolution, Winston Churchill wrote, “The international Jews. The adherents of this sinister confederacy are mostly men reared up among the unhappy populations of countries where Jews are persecuted on account of their race. . . . This world-wide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilization, this band from the underworld . . . have gripped the Russian people by the hair of their heads and have become practically the undisputed masters of that enormous empire” (Illustrated Sunday Herald, London, 8 February 1920). Adolf Hitler, who regularly ranted against Jews and Bolsheviks, wrote, “In Russian Bolshevism we see the attempt undertaken by the Jews in the twentieth century to achieve world domination. . . . Marxism systematically plans to hand the world to the Jews.”
Why did these two major twentieth-century politicians, at opposite ends of the political spectrum, agree that communism was a Jewish conspiracy? How did the myth arise of what was called in Poland and Ukraine the Żydokomuna (Yid–Communist conspiracy) and why does it persist?
Drawing depicting Red Army cadres ousting capitalists and other enemies of the Russian Revolution, from a handmade Yiddish book produced in a Jewish orphanage in Bershad (now Bershad’, Ukr.), 1924. (YIVO)
Before the 1917 revolutions overthrew the tsarist regime and brought the Bolsheviks (Communists) to power, most Jews in the Russian Empire were not actively involved in politics. However, during 1917, when restrictions on Jews were lifted, many feverishly plunged into political activity and planned for a newly structured Jewish community within a democratic Russia. The Jewish political arena included the social-democratic, secular, and anti-Zionist Bund, the Zionists, and a wide range of Orthodox, territorialist, and autonomist parties. The Zionists were the most popular political movement “on the Jewish street” and their cause was helped by the Balfour Declaration, issued in November 1917, which stated that the British government “viewed with favor” the establishment of a Jewish “homeland” in Palestine. The Zionists sold 300,000 “shekels” that symbolized membership in the movement. They won majorities in the elections to the Russian Jewish Congress—designed to plan Jewish public life but never held because of the Bolshevik Revolution—and to the Constituent Assembly that was supposed to write a constitution for post-tsarist Russia but was dissolved by the Bolsheviks. The Bund then had 35,000 members, but some argued that their members were more committed and engaged than many of the Zionists. Despite the impression that Bolshevism was popular among Jews, according to the Communist (Bolshevik) Party census of 1922 there had been only 958 Jewish Bolsheviks at the beginning of 1917 out of a total of 23,600 (4%). It was commonly agreed that the Menshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party (RSDWP) had far more Jewish members.
Jews, however, were very prominent in the Bolshevik leadership. This visibility created the impression of a close tie between Jews and Bolsheviks. At the April 1917 Bolshevik conference, 20 percent of the delegates were Jews. Of 21 members of the Bolshevik Central Committee in August 1917, six were of Jewish origin. Among them, Leon Trotsky (Lev Davidovich Bronshtein) was commissar of foreign affairs and of war; Iakov Mikhailovich Sverdlov was first head of the Soviet government; the deputy chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars was Lev Borisovich Kamenev (Rosenfel’d); chairman of the Petrograd Soviet was Grigorii Evseevich Zinov’ev (Radomysl’skii); deputy head of the Cheka, the “secret police,” was Moisei Uritskii. In a country where a Jew had not been permitted to hold the lowest civil service job—postman, policeman, clerk—the sight of Jews running the government from 1917 to 1921 was a great shock, as shocking as it would have been to people in Mississippi in 1950 to have an African American as governor and chief of the state police.
If we take a close look at the biographies of these leading Bolsheviks, we find that they were “non-Jewish Jews,” in Isaac Deutscher’s phrase. They were highly atypical of the Jews of the time and were alienated from the Jewish community. One was born outside the Pale (Sverdlov), another converted at one point to Christianity (Zinov’ev), and yet another, Kamenev, was half-Jewish. The best known, and the bête noire of the Whites and other opponents of Bolshevism, was Trotsky, who had become a full-fledged Bolshevik only in 1917. He was born on a farm in Ukraine at a time when few Jews were allowed to work the land, spoke Ukrainian, had no Yiddish, and had been ridiculed by Jewish children in the heder to which his mother sent him for a brief time. The leader of the Bund, Vladimir Medem, once asked him, “are you a Russian or a Jew?” and he answered, “I am neither. I am an internationalist, a social-democrat.” Trotsky wrote in his autobiography, “In my mental equipment, nationality never occupied an independent place, as it was felt but little in everyday life. . . . It never played a leading part—not even a recognized one—in my list of grievances.”
These Bolsheviks of Jewish origin were marginal to both Russian and Jewish societies. None had a traditional Jewish education or was literate in a Jewish language. They were “doubly alienated.” They had never been fully a part of the Jewish community, whether by choice or force of circumstances, but when they had tried to become Russians or Poles, they were rejected by those societies. Thus, they had a critical view of the mainstream of both Russian and Jewish societies. The perhaps unconscious, subliminal attraction of Marxism was that it promised a world without nations, one in which ethnicity meant nothing so that there would be no difference between Russian and Jew. The prerevolutionary Jewish Bolsheviks, alienated from the Jewish and Russian societies, looked forward to a society in which those categories would disappear.
The presence of so many people of Jewish origin in the highest ranks of the Bolshevik movement obscured the facts that most Jews in the Russian Empire were still traditional in the early part of the twentieth century and as such were opposed to communism; that Zionism, Bundism, and Menshevism were far more popular among Jews than Bolshevism; and that it was not until after the Revolution and during the Civil War, when almost all the opponents of Bolshevism advocated antisemitic measures, that large numbers of Jews joined the Bolsheviks and their army, partly in order to protect themselves against the Whites and the Ukrainian nationalists. In the first years of the Soviet government, when many of the tsarist administrators and intelligentsia had fled and there were relatively few literate people left, many Jews took advantage of opportunities that had been denied them under the tsars and filled positions in the Soviet civil service, the military, and police. The prominence of Jews in the Cheka, whose mission was to eliminate the enemies of the regime, strengthened the impression that “the Jews had seized power” in Russia.
Béla Kun (third from right, facing left) and other members of the leadership of the Communist revolution at a demonstration, Hungary, 1919. Among the revolutionaries pictured are others of Jewish origin, including Ottó Korvin, Béla Szántó, Tibor Szamuely, Jenő Varga, and Jenő Hamburger. (Hungarian National Museum)
Beyond Russia as well, Jews were overrepresented in Communist parties. In Hungary, during the short-lived revolution of 1919 led by Béla Kun, Tibor Szamuely, and other Jews, most of the government’s commissars were of Jewish origin. In Poland in the interwar period, it has been estimated that perhaps a quarter or more of the illegal Communist party was Jewish. Jews were also overrepresented in relation to their proportion of the population in the Romanian, Lithuanian, and other Communist parties. However, as a proportion of the Jewish populations of these countries, Communists were a tiny minority. So if there were, say, 10,000 Polish Jewish Communists (1930s) out of some 40,000 party members (an estimate for 1933 when party membership was probably at its peak), they were 10,000 in a Jewish population of 3.35 million, that is, almost a third of 1 percent (.0029). Jews were thus about a quarter of all Communists—and in the Communist youth movements their proportion was sometimes double that—but Communists were a very small minority in Polish Jewry. Jews in Eastern Europe had little reason to defend the status quo, but the overwhelming majority did not choose to overthrow it by force, as the Communists advocated.
Recent research has shown that in interwar Poland, Jews voted mainly for Jewish parties and only between 2 and 7 percent voted for the Communist Party or its fronts. Surprisingly, the largely peasant Belorussians and Ukrainians in Poland voted for Communists in substantially larger proportions. There seem to have been five times as many Christian Orthodox (almost of all whom were Belorussian or Ukrainian) votes for the Communists as there were Jewish votes in the 1928 election. Of course, these votes were cast not so much in support of Marxist ideology and Soviet practice than as a protest against a Polish state that systematically discriminated against the ethnic minorities who constituted about a third of the total population. Looking at the data another way, about 14 percent of the Communist vote came from Jews. Indeed, Jews were the single largest group supporting the (anticommunist) government party, half of them casting ballots for it while among Catholics (mostly Poles) only 16 percent did so.
Jews were also prominent in the small, illegal Communist parties of Romania and Hungary—on the eve of World War II each party probably had less than a thousand members—and were an even smaller fraction of the Jewish populations in those countries. The fascist Arrow Cross in Hungary and its counterpart in Romania, the Iron Guard, stressed the supposed alliance between communism and Jewry, considering both inimical to their respective national interests. The Iron Guard saw communism as a new manifestation of the “Jewish danger,” though the vast majority of Romanian Jews had no sympathy for communism.
When in August 1939 the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany, many Jewish Communists in the West were perplexed, and some unknown number left the party in France, England, and the United States. In Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, most Jewish Communists seem to have accepted the explanation, offered only to party members, that Stalin was wisely buying time and diverting Hitler’s attention to capitalist countries.
The myth of Żydokomuna, the Communist-Jewish conspiracy, took on practical and tragic meaning in parts of Eastern Europe from 1939 to 1941. At a time when Jews were fading from prominence in most Soviet hierarchies, the division of Eastern Europe between Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany raised the visibility of Jewish Communists. Because communism was so unpopular in Eastern Europe, whose societies were largely peasant and religious, there were not enough local Communists to administer the territories that came under Soviet control from 1939 to 1940: eastern Poland, the three Baltic states, and the Romanian provinces of Bessarabia and Bucovina. Among the few local Communists, there was a disproportionately high number of Jews. Local Jewish Communists were initially appointed to positions of authority, though they were almost immediately replaced by trusted Communists who came from the USSR itself.
The very presence of Jews in positions of authority, however, had somewhat the same impact on non-Jewish populations in the new Soviet territories as had the rise of Jews to prominence in Soviet Russia itself some 20 years earlier. Non-Jews saw governance as an unnatural role for Jews. On the other hand, some Jews welcomed the Soviet “liberation” because it replaced increasingly authoritarian and antisemitic regimes with one that promised ethnic equality and that seemed to have given its own Jews opportunities that they had never enjoyed under any previous government. By the mid-1930s, the governments of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania had become dictatorships. The policies pursued were increasingly antisemitic. For young, secular Jews who were not convinced by Zionist arguments, a Soviet alternative was most plausible and attractive. Their feelings were reinforced when they encountered Soviet Jewish officers, some of whom spoke Yiddish, and they could not but admire a system that allowed Jews to rise as high as their talents would take them.
Therefore, in many places these Jews publicly greeted the Red Army, to the great consternation of their non-Jewish neighbors, and some took minor official posts under the new regime. There was a divergence of perceptions between some Jews and many non-Jews: the former regarded the Soviet forces as liberators and the latter saw them as conquerors. Moreover, many Balts and Poles understood that the Soviet occupation had brought to an end the brief period of independence that these states had enjoyed. Thus, the Soviet occupation was not only the imposition of an unwanted socialist economic and Communist political system, but also the end of national independence and a major threat to the religions to which the native populations adhered. Insofar as Jews were welcoming the conquerors, they were perceived as traitors to the state and the nation.
Thus, when the Red Army withdrew from some localities as border adjustments were made with Nazi-occupied territories, or when the Red Army retreated in great confusion and haste following the invasion of the USSR by their erstwhile ally, the Nazis, on 22 June 1941, local gentiles sometimes took the opportunity to take revenge on “the Jews,” all of whom were seen as Communist-sympathizing traitors. Pogroms against Jews were mounted in the areas that the Soviet authorities had left. This created or reinforced the impression among Jews that the locals were “fascists,” just as the locals were convinced that the Jews were “Communists.” The Jewish “sellout” of their states served very often as the rationale for nationalist “partisans” who collaborated with the Nazis by working in killing squads, as concentration camp guards, or as those who helped in deportations from the Jewish ghettos. The Nazis were fighting the Soviets and the Jews, two allies, as others saw them, so it was only natural for anti-Soviets to assist the Nazis in their pursuit of the Jews.
These divergent perceptions and understandings colored Jewish–gentile relations in these areas and beyond for decades after the end of the war. They have also influenced relations between the State of Israel and the postcommunist states, as well as relations between present-day Jewish and non-Jewish inhabitants of the contested areas.
The Post–World War II Era
In the 1930s, the Jewish presence in the Soviet regime began to decline, at times drastically. A new Soviet bureaucratic class had emerged and the system no longer depended on a relatively small group of literate people who could be trusted politically. Jews had also been fairly prominent in the “Left Opposition” (Trotsky, Zinov’ev, Kamenev) that had lost out to Stalin in the internal party struggle, and so they were purged. There were signs that Jews were less trusted or welcome in the higher echelons. Foreign Minister Maksim Litvinov (Meir-Henekh Wallach) had been replaced as Stalin drew closer to Hitler, several prominent Jewish generals (Iakir, Gamarnik, Fel’dman) had fallen victim to the 1937 purge of the military, and the number of Jews in the elite of the secret police declined drastically between 1934 and 1939.
After 1943 this trend accelerated. It reached its peak from 1948 to 1953, the last years of Stalin’s life. Jews were refused admission to institutions of higher education, purged from leading posts in a wide range of Soviet institutions, and accused of being “rootless cosmopolitans”; very few were accepted into the military academies. All Yiddish cultural institutions were closed, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee was disbanded and many of its leaders arrested. In 1952 about a score of leading Jewish cultural and professional figures were shot. Not surprisingly, few Jews remained Communist idealists even when they remained in the party’s ranks. Outside the USSR, disillusioned Jewish Communists left their national parties and some became vocal critics of the Soviet system.
“Communist Ana Pauker.” Ana Pauker featured on the cover of Time Magazine, 20 September 1948. (TIME Magazine © 2008, Time Inc. Reprinted by permission)
In Eastern Europe, Jews were also removed from leading positions in the Communist parties. Ana Pauker lost out in an intraparty struggle in Romania, most of the Jews in the leadership of the Czechoslovak Communist Party were purged in the Slánský Trial of 1952, and in 1956 the “Polish October” and the Hungarian revolution led to the removal of many Jewish leaders (among them Mátyás Rakósi, first secretary of the Hungarian Party, and Jakub Berman, an important member of the Polish Politburo). Shortly thereafter, the last Jew in the Soviet Politburo, Lazar’ Moiseevich Kaganovich, was removed because he was part of the anti-Khrushchev cabal.
Stalinist antisemitic policies and the revelations in 1956 about the purges and mass murders alienated many Jewish Communists in the West. Many Jews left the American, French, British, and Israeli Communist parties. When the Polish United Workers [Communist] Party launched its “anti-Zionist” campaign in 1968, not only did about half the Polish Jewish population emigrate, but there were further defections from communism among the few Jews remaining in its ranks outside Eastern Europe. The romance between some Jews and communism was over.
This has not put to rest the Żydokomuna myth. In several postcommunist states—Russia, Romania, Hungary—Jews are still associated with the evils of communism by individuals who sometimes also blame Jews for the failings of capitalism. Conspiracy theories about Jews are used to explain the Communist rupture in national history and the damage done to the people. At the same time, some see “the Jews” as the evil force behind the unemployment, poverty, and other ills that have been visited on the postcommunist states. These are minor voices and younger generations are by and large not attracted to these ideas. As the most famous Jewish Communist, Leon Trotsky, said, “consciousness lags behind reality.”
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