The Trials and Tribulations of Jewish Radicals and Revolutionaries

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The Trials and Tribulations of Jewish Radicals and Revolutionaries

The Jewish community in Eastern Europe has historically been a long suffering community amidst many other suffering communities. Racial, religious, and ethnic violence have all been targeted at the Jews, especially in times of trouble. It is no wonder than that many Jewish intellectuals in Europe, especially in the Russian empire, turned to radical or revolutionary solutions to solve the social ills that plagued both their communities and people specifically as well as the societies they lived in in general. Jews in the modern era in Eastern Europe have filled numerous positions of importance within various revolutionary and radical movements, as well as creating their own Jewish oriented movements, especially in the Russian Empire/the Soviet Union. The first contention in this paper is that Jews were incredibly important to the various radical and revolutionary movements in Eastern Europe, most notably Russia. But this does not fully encapsulate the Jewish revolutionary experience because there is another side to this coin. Jewish revolutionaries and radicals and Jewish revolutionary and radical movements also were consistently sold out by almost each and every revolutionary and radical movement that they were a part of, either being left by the wayside and their fight for equal rights ignored or even becoming the actual targets of wrath of the movements that they themselves had been championing. This dynamic of Jewish revolutionaries being important to revolutionary movements in Eastern Europe and Russia, but also becoming either ignored or in fact turned against by said movements will be seen time and again through numerous important revolutionary examples in Russia and throughout Europe.

Now first one must talk about Jewish revolutionaries and radicals in general and certain myths surrounding them. One pervasive myth about Jews in Eastern Europe is that the vast majority of them were radical, were revolutionaries, were Bolsheviks, etc. As the old story goes, “12 radicals were hung today, 16 were Jews.” It is true, as this paper will show, that there were many in the various radical movements of the time that counted themselves also among the membership of the Jewish intelligentsia, Jewish radicals made up only a small portion of Jewish society. For instance, out of 20,000 registered Bolsheviks on the eve of the Revolution in Russia, only 364 were ethnic Jews (Kniesmeyer and Brecher). While many more were Mensheviks or in other socialist parties, the idea of Żydokomuna, of Judeo-Bolshevism, is an idea that, in reality, holds little weight. But we will see that those Jews that were radicals and revolutionaries were very important to the movements that they were a part of.

The first group that we shall look at are the Russian populists, also known as the Narodniki (a term derived from the Russian that translates to ‘going to the people’) or narodniks. This group of individuals was one of the first and most influential groups of leftists and reformists in Russia. They were not Marxists and most of their beliefs had nothing to do with the proletariat rising up and overthrowing the established tsarist regime. The reason for this being simply that there was, at the time this movement started, very little proletariat to speak of and Russia was still a country that was demographically dominated by peasantry in the countryside, not an educated, urban, industrialized working class like the United States (especially the North) or Western Europe. These radicals looked to the peasantry of Russia as the saviors of the ills of society and the apparatus of change that would create a socialist (non-Marxist) society within Russia. How this should come about was a matter of debate among the various narodniki. As Geoffrey Hosking states in his book The First Socialist Society “This did not make the practical dilemmas of the radicals any easier. It...
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