The Role of Jews in the Creation of Communist Russia and the Myth of “Judeo-Bolshevism”
A Guided History by Lauren Kolodkin
Jews in the late 19th century were experiencing huge changes to their traditional society and way of life. As modernity emerged across Europe, the Jews of the Russian Empire began experiencing the Enlightenment and modern intellectual thought, integration into modern nations, and new forms of cultural attitude and bias. Anti-Semitism, rather than fading, grew intensely. Jews experienced conflicting transformations within their society; growing integration alongside less religiously driven anti-Jewish feeling. Intellectual movements of the time, such as Communism, included anti-Semitic doctrine. However, these new political movements proved to be attractive to Jewish people, Communism and Socialism especially.
There are a great deal of questions about Jewish involvement in the origins of Communism and the Communist revolution in Russia. There are quite a few significant characters in the story of socialism, from young revolutionaries such as Emma Goldman to scholars like Eduard Bernstein to party leaders, namely Vladimir Lenin. Jews had a role in the emergence of socialist political movements and to deny this as myth is to shut out an important part of their history. However, the intensity of their involvement—and the reasons for their involvement—must be carefully examined. The myth of the Jew as an ardent Communist and therefore underminer of the modern nation is one that became vastly influential after the Russian Revolution; during the era prior to WWII, the concept of the ‘Jewish Bolshevist’ became prominent in Nazi propaganda. This trope was blown out of proportion and the truth of Jewish participation in Communism and Socialism is a topic to be examined carefully.
This Guided History is organized by type of source, i.e. monograph, journal article, or archive/encyclopedia, but is also helpfully labeled to help users determine what questions each source will answer. The following questions are intended to direct the researcher towards relevant information, useful resources for further study, and perhaps more detailed questions.
1. What was Jewish life in Russia like before the Revolution, in terms of socialist political feeling?
2. Who were the prominent Jews in the Communist movement? Were there any?
3. Why did socialist movements appeal to Jews of this time?
4. What was the historical result of Jewish participation in the Communist movement in Russia?
5. Is the Myth of “Judeo-Bolshevism” Legitimate?
Each source description below includes the number (or numbers) of the question it helps to answer. Some sources may touch on all five of the questions, but focus primarily on the two or three listed. These questions are simply a guideline for more intensive research, and are not always answered fully (or without bias!) by each source.
Monographs and Related Excerpts:
Muller, Jerry Z. “Radical Anticapitalism: the Jew as Communist.” In Capitalism and the Jews, 133-88. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.
This chapter speaks on the idea of the myth of “Judeo-Bolshevism,” which appeared prominently after the Russian Revolution and played a large role in Nazi propaganda. Jews, according to Muller, were forced by anti-Semitism towards a movement that promised to remove religion from the agency of government that penalized Jews for simply being Jewish. However, the few Jews who actually joined this movement did so towards disastrous ends, as the entire Jewish population was ultimately criticized by anti-Communists for the association and abused by Communists themselves. This source examines the myth and it’s origins in Russia, as well as other relevant countries. (Questions 2, 4 & 5)
Traverso, Enzo. The Marxists and the Jewish Question: The History of a Debate (1843-1943). Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1990.
The entire work by Traverso explores the role of Jews in Marxism, the Russian Revolution, and other relevant movements and intellectual groupings. Although Traverso does touch on Communism in Germany and Austria, his primary focus is Russia before and after the Revolution. He argues that Jews played a rather notable role in the rise of Bolshevism, despite the fact that a relative few of the Jewish intelligentsia participated in such movements. Many Jews, he argues, held prominent positions in socialist movements and were viewed as being heavily involved; in actuality, the majority of Jews did not accept Communism as it conflicted with their religious beliefs. (Questions 1 & 4)
Teller, Judd L. Scapegoat of Revolution. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954.
Teller’s work, while complicated and convoluted, is an interesting perspective on the topic. Written during the height of the cold war, it focuses on the history of Jewish involvement in Russian communism and the origins of modern Anti-Semitism. This source is primarily useful for background information on the subject from an inherently biased source; interesting conclusions could be drawn from an analysis of Teller’s interpretation of the “Judeo-Bolshevist” myth against analysis of his own pro-Capitalism slant. (Questions 1, 4 & 5)
Shore, Marci. “‘If We’re Proud of Freud…’ The Family Romance of Judeo-Bolshevism.” East European Politics and Societies 23 (2009): 298-314, accessed November 5, 2012, doi:10.1177/0888325409333190
Shore’s article is, as explained in the abstract, an exploration into the relationship between Jews and Communism within the framework of an Oedipal relationship. The topic is approached as a changing relationship, beginning with the ppeal of Marxist doctrine to young Russian Jews and Eastern Europeans who were living in a climate that was turned against them, to the later generations who suffered the backlash of Anti-Semitic feeling from Stalin and the Soviet Union, especially in Poland. Shore argues that the generation of Jews who joined the Communist movement in Russia were not given the freedom they expected from socialism, and their children and grandchildren, who were punished alongside the original generation, would eventually turn around and seek an Oedipal revolution, an end to Communism. (Questions 1, 3, 4 & 5)
Blanchard, William H. “Karl Marx and the Jewish Question.” Political Psychology 5.3 (1984): 365-374, accessed November 3, 2012, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3790882
This article, while slightly dated, attempts to explain why Karl Marx– who was, in the beginning of his career, quite Anti-Semitic– abandoned Anti-Semitism as a tenet of his political doctrine. The majority of the article is a psychological analysis of Marx, but it does bring up some excellent questions related to the topic of this Guided History. primarily, Blanchard points out that Marx may have been ambivalent on the Jewish question for a number of complicated and surprisingly common reasons: first, that Jews were traditionally associated with capitalism and greed, and second, because of the aforementioned association he wished to distance himself from his own Jewish heritage. The myth of “Judeo-Bolshevism” and the truth of the relationship have, according to Blanchard’s analysis, foundations in emotional as well as intellectual feeling. (Question 2)
Schapiro, Leonard. “The Role of Jews in the Russian Revolutionary Movement.” The Slavonic and East European Review, 40.94 (1961): 148-167, accessed November 3, 2012, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4205328
Schapiro’s article discusses the history of Jewish involvement in the Russian Revolutionary movements, from approximately 1870 to the actual Russian Revolution. He asserts that Jews played a powerful role in the movement, although they did not participate in ideological leadership. Jews who participated in the Revolution were, as other historians cited in this Guide have claimed, members of the new Jewish intelligentsia. Schapiro discusses the activity of Jews in actual violence during the revolution as well as their contributions to the emerging party. Generally speaking, this article is focused on Jewish involvement from what seems to be a Jewish perspective. (Questions 2, 3 & 4)
Berenbaum, Michael and Skolnik, Fred, eds. Encyclopedia Judaica, 2nd ed.Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.bu.edu/…
The Encyclopedia Judaica, as viewed via the Gale Virtual Reference Library, inludes a vast amount of articles on Jewish history and culture. All one has to do is search “Communism” within this Encyclopedia and articles on related events, people, and political phenomena are available for research and review. However, permission is required to access the site. Boston University students may access it through the list of databases on the BU Libraries webpage. (Questions 1-5)
YIVO Institute. “Communism.” In The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jewish History. Accessed November 6, 2012. http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/default.aspx
The YIVO Encyclopedia has multiple relevant articles with helpful information, links, and printed resources. It is a free online resource funded by the YIVO Institute, which is located in New York. For this topic, a great place to start is the encyclopedia’s page on “Communism,” which includes relevant bckground information as well as helpful links to other related pages. The YIVO Encyclopedia also includes multi-media resources, such as photographs and video. The photo included in this Guided History came from the YIVO Encyclopedia. (Questions 1-5)
Mendelsohn, Ezra, ed. Essential Papers on Jews and the Left. New York: New York University Press, 1997.
This collection of essays on Jewish involvement in socialist movements, particularly in Russia, has many helpful pieces on the history of Jewish Communists, the origins of their involvement in such movements, and prominent figures within the topic, both Jewish and non-Jewish. All of the essays are modern. Mendelsohn, in his introduction to the collection, points out that the book focuses on the “Judeo-Bolshevist” myth in the United States and Israel as well as Russia, but quickly states that the Russian Pale of Settlement– that is, the area in which Jews were allowed to settle in the Russian Empire– was the birthplace of Jewish socialism out of a struggling working class influenced by an assimilating intelligentsia. (Questions 1, 3, & 4)
Frankel, Jonathan, Lederhendler, Eli, Medding, Peter Y., and Mendelsohn, Ezra, eds. Studies in Contemporary Jewry, Vol. 20, Dark Times, Dire Decisions. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
This volume, one of 23 in Studies in Contemporary Jewry, includes essays, review essays, and book reviews about modern Jews but is interesting to this Guided History for it’s first section: the Symposium. The pieces in this first section are concerned with the general topic of Jews and Communism. The pieces vary in topic but are, more often than not, centered around Communism on the Russian stage, from before and after the Russian Revolution. They serve as an excellent jumping-off point for other areas of investigation within the broader topic of Jews in Russian Communism. (Question 4)
Relevant Primary Sources:
Churchill, Winston. “Zionism versus Bolshevism.” The Illustrated Sunday Herald, February 8, 1920. Accessed November 7, 2012. http://www.fpp.co.uk/bookchapters/WSC/WSCwrote1920.html
This article by Winston Churchill was published in Britain when the heat of the Russian Revolution was still felt across Europe. In it, Churchill discusses the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Jews, and ultimately asserts that the ‘bad’ Jews in Russia played a prominent role in bringing about the revolution. This article is useful in providing an outside perspective of the time– that is, someone not from eastern Europe–and in demonstrating what must have been the popular opinion on Jews in Europe during this time. Even though Churchill writes about the merits of ‘good’ Jews and claims that they deserve to be treated well, he also clearly views them as a racial group that needed Britain’s protection via the propagation of Zionism. (Question 4)*This is supposed to read “enjoy!” but I do not actually know Russian and am forced to rely on the tragically unreliable translation skills of Google. I am hoping you, the reader, will find this whole shtick kitschy and adorable, and will graciously ignore the possibility that the Russian word I included may actually mean “doughnut” or “small child” or something else equally embarrassing.