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The Trials and Tribulations of Jewish Radicals and Revolutionaries

By blackjosh1234 Dec 09, 2008 3964 Words
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 was not at all clear how they were to achieve their aims. Alexander Herzen, perhaps the first thorough-going Russian socialist, thought the peasant commune should function as the nucleus of the new society, but he was ambivalent about how and even whether a revolution should take place to bring that about.” (Hosking 21-22) Even though the views of the actual nuts and bolts of the movement varied from leader to leader, person to person, the idea of the Russian peasantry being lifted up by the education of the intelligentsia and changing, either through violence or through peacable non-revolutionary means, the current system was the dominant leftist ideology of the time in Russia. In this movement, Jewish intelligentsia was very important. Many leading narodniks were Jews. As Zvi Gitelman states in A Century of Ambivalence: The Jews of Russia and the Soviet Union, 1881 to the Present “Ironically, anti-Semitism was perhaps more painful to those who had hoped that education and enlightenment, both that of the Jews as well as of their neighbors, would gradually wipe it out. Some had placed as much faith in the new ideologies as their forefathers had placed in the old.” (Gitelman 12-13) He goes on to tell the story of Solomon Wittenberg, a Jewish revolutionary that refuses to convert to commute his death sentence (Gitelman 13). Here we get a view of Jewish narodniki and the importance with which they viewed their movement, as well as the sacrifice that they were willing to exert onto this movement. They viewed it not only as a means to change Russian society as a whole, but also to reshape the education of the Russian peasantry so as to rid the countryside of the vicious pogroms that would periodically run amok among their communities.

However, this attitude towards populism, narodism, would be short-lived. Jews would flock in droves away from narodism and towards alternative forms of radicalism, most notably Marxism around the turn of the century. There was a very distinct reason for this. In the early 1880s, a new round of peasant pogroms swept across the Russian state. Now the Jewish problem, even for many leading Jews, had never been the foremost problem in the ideas of the narodniki to begin with. As Aaron Zundelevich, a leading early Jewish socialist, says of the narodniki “For us…Jewry as a national organism did not represent a phenomenon worthy of support. Jewish nationalism, it seemed to us, had no raison d’etre. As for religion, that cement which combines the Jews into one unit, it represented to us complete retrogression…for a Jewish narodnik the motto—‘Go to the people’—meant go to the Russian people.” (Gitelman, 13) But the reaction to these pogroms was even more startling to many Jews. Many narodniks praised the misguided and racist violence unleashed by the peasantry. As the Narodnaia Volia stated, the pogroms had “an echo of our activity” (Gitelman 13). The point being made by many of these non-Jewish narodniks was that this type of activity by the peasantry was good for them, in the long run. That, while maybe the rage and violence of the peasants was misplaced (though some narodniki even bought into the idea of the Jew as a crucial part of the landowning apparatus), it was a good sign because it should that the peasants could be aroused, could be used as a tool of violent revolution against a corrupt system (a sentiment that was gaining more popularity amongst the increasingly radicalized Russian intelligentsia of the time). With more time, more shaping, more molding, then the peasants and their obvious ability to be driven to anger and violent fervor, could be directed at the true targets of this ire, the state and the Tsarist regime. This however did not sit well with those narodniki that also counted themselves among the people that were being pogromised, the Jews. As one revolutionary Jew states, “Deep down in the soul of each one of us, revolutionaries of Jewish birth, there was a sense of hurt pride and infinite pity for our own, and many of us were strongly tempted to devote ourselves to serving our injured, humiliated, and persecuted people.” (Gitelman 14) Because of this attitude by their fellow revolutionaries, many fled to other, more attractive Radical movements, which among gentiles were also gaining strength. Many of these former populists became Marxists in some way or another.

The Marxist-Socialist movement becomes the dominant leftist movement among all social strata in Russia at this time, the late 19th century coming into the early 20th. Many have felt their trust in the peasantry to be misplaced and began to look to the newly emerging industrial working class in Russia as the salvation of the state. The leading party here becomes the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, which would later split into the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks. The importance the Bolsheviks have to the history of Russia is quite obvious to anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of history. The Bolsheviks, through the October Revolution, seize the Winter Palace and establish the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. This is one of the great turning points in history, and probably the greatest success for leftist revolutionaries and radicals anywhere in the world, certainly at this point and Jews were heavily involved in the Marxist movement in Russia. Though, as stated before, they counted themselves as few among the Bolsheviks, they were many among the Mensheviks and many were important to the creation and early years of the Soviet state. As Hoskings points out

“One nationality occupied a very distinctive position in the Soviet Union: that was the Jews. Discriminated against by the tsarist government, the Jews were natural recruits to the revolutionary movement, and in many respects beneficiaries of the events of 1917-21. They were numerous in the Communist Party, and included some of its best-known figures: Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Sverdlov, Radek. Notoriously some of the most vehement opponents of communism identified it with the Jewish ‘international conspiracy’.” (Hosking 255)

In this case, both the importance of the movement and the importance of Jews to said movement are plainly evident. Even outside Russia, Marxist Jews and organizations were mobilizing and showing their importance.

The Jewish Labor Bund was another example of a Marxist organization at this time. This party operated, however, both inside and outside of Russia and was an exclusively Jewish party. This party, in Russia, was a founding member party of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, and became the most popular political party of Jews in the Eastern Europe in the early 20th century. ( This party would continue to be important, and in Poland, continue to be the most popular, in Eastern Europe until after World War II (Mendelsohn 46). However, the Bund is the first part, first warning sign, of the established Marxist order turning its back on the Jews and the Jewish community. In Russia, the Bund was outlawed, like all other political parties, after the Bolsheviks seized power. Though this was unfortunate to many Bundists, many others accepted it as the need to move forward under one part of progress and to forget about the idea of nationalism which in Marxist theory was antithetical to a legitimate socialist revolution. Later, however, former Bundists would be viewed some time as potential enemies of the state in the Soviet Union and would be sent off to the labor camps. This was only the beginning.

We see the heavy Jewish involvement in the Marxist movement in Russia and even more importantly we see within the nascent Soviet Union Jews being represented not just by a party, but by actual Jewish (though non-practicing) leaders. We see even in the beginning years problems still existing for Jews in the Russian and Ukrainian territories. During the Russian Civil War, pogroms flared up continuously and violently against Jews and it seemed every army involved, except for the Red Army, committed some sort of atrocious act of violence against the Jews. Parts of the White Army under Anton Denikin even used the old slogan "Strike at the Jews and Save Russia.”(Gitelman). In fact, while Hosking just wrote that perhaps Jews were beneficiaries of the Russian Revolution, these times were, by the numbers, the worst pogroms in the history of the Russian empire (up to 250,000 dead among Jewish civilians)(Gitelman) and its antecedents, though many times this overlooked because of the overall destruction and chaos that reigned at this point in Russian history. However, these pogroms, if not the events that lead to them, could hardly be blamed on the Soviets, and in fact, they were the only army that did anything in any way about this and intervening in such situations usually to the benefit of the Jewish communities. It would seem as if the Soviets were the saviors of the Jewish people that they had been looking for. So how did this even go wrong for the Jews? How did Jews again find themselves the low men on the totem pole? Many would point to the rise of Stalin as the beginning of the Jewish backlash and the Georgian Man of Steel seems to be a good candidate to mark as the beginning of the end for total Jewish acceptance in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The first victims of the backlash of Stalin and the Communist party under his reign were not Jews as a whole, nor does it seem fair to characterize this as racially motivated. The first victims were Jewish leaders that happened to be arrayed against, or somehow threatening, to the power of Stalin. This is, again, not to say that the intention here was anti-Semitic, even though later we will see more blatant and obvious anti-Semitic danger coming from Stalin later in his life. However, in act, most of the leading Jewish Soviet leaders were purged (Kamenev, Zinoviev) or sent into exile (Trotsky) by Stalin and his quest for the consolidation of power. Also, at this time, Stalin and the Soviet Union begin a more aggressive campaign against Zionists and former Zionists. Believers in a Jewish homeland that will be detailed later, again these were Jews, but the cause of their persecution (while ultimately stemming from them being a Jew) stemmed from the anti-nationalist (at least non-Soviet nationalism) party line of the Soviet Union. Before and during World War II, numerous Zionists in occupied Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania are sent to labor and die in the soviet gulags.

But this is not the last of anti-Jewish workings of Stalin. One could defend, at least on the grounds of whether or not the act was anti-Semitic, that the purging of high ranking Jews during Stalin’s purges had much more to do with simple consolidation of power than any innate sense of anti-Semitism that Stalin had and one would most probably be correct about this at this point. It does not seem that these were motivated by any sort of anti-Semitic rhetoric or working. However, after World War II and the horrors it visited upon both the Soviet people and the Jews of Europe, we begin to see a shift in Soviet policy. We see a growing resentment of Soviets to the role of Jews as victims of the war, many considering that the Soviet Union suffered as a whole far more and that singling out Jews for special treatment was an affront to Soviet heroism. Many in the party grumbled about the success Jews have had because of the Party in relations to others. Moscow University, at this time, began to apply a quota to Jewish acceptance and certain jobs were cut off to them (Hosking 258). The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 created a new wrinkle in this emerging Soviet anti-semitism. As Hosking reports,

“The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 made Jews doubly unlike any other Soviet nationality. Not only had they no territory at home, but now they actually did have a potential one abroad. Given the post-war concern, even hysteria, about spies and subversion, that could have only one consequence. Official discrimination moved on from mere discrimination to active persecution. Stalin’s campaign against ‘cosmopolitans’ was mainly directed against Jews, who were now far more likely than anyone else to lose their jobs and be arrested. Everyone was encouraged to sniff out ‘Zionists’.”(Hosking 258-259)

These reasonings, coupled with the continually growing paranoia that has always been a hallmark of the character of Josef Stalin, lead the Soviet Union down a dark path. This would become even more outrageous as time went by. Jewish cultural leaders were arrested, Yiddish writers and figures purged. Jewish figures were executed for accused “wrecking” and collaboration with the west, in one case being accused of trying to establish a new Jewish state in the Crimea that would be handed over to the British and the United States (Hosking 259). This culminated in what became known as the Doctor’s Plot, in which numerous Soviet doctors, mostly Jewish, were accused of planning to wipe out the leading Communists “through medical means” (Hosking 316). A planned purge of mostly Jewish doctors was set by Stalin, but never carried to fruition because of his sudden, unexpected (and some may even say suspicious) death. Many of these de facto anti-Semitic policies would be reversed after the death of Stalin, but the damage to the reputation of the Soviet Union as a Jewish friendly place had already been done.

A third movement must be discussed alongside these two. The discourse on this movement in this paper will be slightly different, seeing as the results as well as the instigators of this movement differ from how these other movements have progressed. This third movement will be the movement of Zionism. Zionism was a movement that was first articulated by a Hungarian Jew by the name of Theodore Herzl. Herzl was a cosmopolitan Austro-Hungarian Jew. He was a Jew that was a product of a movement known as the Haskalah. The Haskalah movement was one in which Jews began to preach the importance of their religion as their identifier over their culture and that they should strive to be “Countrymen at work and outside, and Jews in their homes” meaning that these men should be Frenchmen, or Germans, or Hungarians first and practice their Judaic religion at home without bringing it into the public sphere. Herzl was at first a German nationalist, writing for ideas of German unity across borders ( However, Herzl became wrapped up in a case of treason that became very important at this time in Europe, the case of Captain Alfred Dreyfuss. Dreyfuss was accused of treason and many, including Herzl, believed that he was being rail-roaded because of prevailing attitudes of anti-Semitism. That this occurred in a Western European country, France no less, in what is supposed to be part of the most modern and progressive culture in the world, deeply disturbed Herzl and shook his core beliefs to their foundations. More and more, because of this case, Herzl began to believe that anti-Semitism was not combatable anywhere, even in “modern” states, and that Jews, as a people, as a nation, would have to create and immigrate to their own nation-state, so that they would not have to be at the whim of whatever nationality their diasporic community was currently under. Clearly influenced by the nationalist ideals of many writers of the time, he founded the movement of Zionism ( Zionism would become one of the prevailing political ideologies in the worldwide Jewish community, in many places competing fiercely with Bundists, Marxists, and religious communities such as the Hasidim. Just as much as Zionism competed with other radical movements among Jews as well as movements in general, it also began to compete with itself. The Zionist movement splintered into numerous different subsets of numerous different ideologies. While all these different factions accepted the idea that Jews needed a homeland, they all fought over what this homeland should look like. Secular capitalist Zionists, religious Zionists, and socialist Zionist are just the three most important categories of Zionists that existed. This movement existed across Europe. This idea, contrary to the dominant theme of this paper, was not one that in the end ended up being sold out completely by outside forces. While one could contend that many forces acted against the Zionists, such as the British closing Palestine off to Jewish immigration or the policies that the Soviets enacted against the Zionists, believing their nationalist beliefs to be antithetical to the Soviet cause, these in the long run did not stop the creation of a Jewish homeland. This could be the one example where Jews were able to create and participate in a movement as well as reap the benefits. Perhaps this can be most readily explained by the fact that there were, within the actual movement, exclusively Jews. Perhaps Theodore Herzl was right and the only people Jews could trust was each other. However, this does not mean that anti-Semites did not still have a part in the agenda of the Zionists and did not still get something of what they wanted out of this movement, the reason being that many anti-Semites agreed with the Zionists. They enjoyed and relished the idea of Jews receiving their own homeland and, in turn, moving away. A widely echoed anti-Semitic slogan across Europe, especially in Eastern Europe was “Jews go to Palestine!”. Many Jews even believed that Zionism in some way represented a defeated for the Jewish people, an acceptance of their “unacceptable” role in European society. As Yoram Hazony states in his book The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul, “Like Tolstoy and the Narodnik movement, which had done so much to promote the cult of the Russian peasant and the Russian soil, these radical Zionists sought salvation in the belief that the Jews were not a real nation because they did not work the land and that the Jewish middle classes were parasites who persisted by the sweat of the Russian workingman. In this they accepted the arguments of the anti-Semites, learning to hate themselves as the Russians hated them and determining self-respect could only be gained by becoming like Russian laborers themselves.” (Hazony) So we see here, even in this moment of triumph, we are given pause at what Zionism means not only to Jews, but to those that supported it outside the Jewish community. While the argument that this revolution was sold out by non-Jews falls on deaf ears, that it somehow was a defeat of anti-Semitism and a change in society in general for the better is another question that is not as easily answered.

We can see through all this the incredible willpower of the Jewish people to struggle on. Through pogroms, setbacks, and betrayals, we see an enduring struggle to right what is wrong in Jewish society, and society in general, and to create a better life for those down the road. The methods may be different, or even contradictory, but the idea at the very core of the belief is the same. This persists no matter how many times we see those outside the Jewish community sabotaging them.  

Works Cited:
Gitelman, Zvi. A Century of Ambivalence: the Jews of Russia and the Soviet Union, 1881 to the Present. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2001. Kniesmeyer, J, and D Brecher. Beyond the Pale: the History of Jews in Russia. 1995. Friends and Partners. 6 Apr. 2008 . "Theodore Herzl." Jewish Virtual Library. 2004. Jewish Virtual Library. 8 Apr. 2008. Geoffrey Hosking, The First Socialist Society: A History of the Soviet Union from Within. Harvard University Press, 1993.

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