Anti-Semitism and the Russian Revolution

March 31, 2021
Women demand "Bread and Peace" in February 1917. Inset: Cover of Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution by Brendan McGeever

Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution
By Brendan McGeever
Cambridge University Press, 2020

Anti-Semitism is an evil that dogged the Russian Revolution from its beginning.

It was deeply entrenched by the Tsarist autocracy, deliberately fostered over centuries by 140 anti-Jewish laws and buttressed by the teachings of the church. Like the Untouchable caste in Hindu society, Jews were forced to perform tasks that were taboo in feudal society, while branded as pariahs and ghettoised.

They were the commercial intermediaries between the lords of the manors and their serfs. Jews were the resented traders who kept the wheels of agriculture turning, essential while being accused of crafty bargaining and usury.

Victor Serge spoke of anti-Semitism as an evil spirit that “was the enemy, the counter-revolution.”

The revolutionaries “could feel it all around us, on the watch, looking for our weakness, our mistakes, our follies, skilfully making us stumble, ready at the slightest lapse to pounce on us and tear us to pieces.”

Brendan McGeever has done history a great service in revealing many of the Bolsheviks’ mistakes in the battle against anti-Semitism. He highlights the exemplary work of many Jewish socialists, members of the Bund, the Poalei Zion and other parties in pushing the Bolsheviks forward.

His research is admirable, but some of his conclusions and emphases are at variance with the evidence he presents.

At the beginning of the revolutionary upsurge, in February 1917, the Bolsheviks had 24,000 members. By the time of the October Revolution, more than 200,000 people had joined, bringing with them all the mixed consciousness of the Empire’s workers and poor.

Karl Marx wrote of revolution in The Communist Manifesto: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

So it was in the Russian Revolution, all parts of society, including revolutionaries, workers, peasants and intellectuals were thrown into turmoil and forced to relate to each other in new ways. All the positive and negative lessons of how human beings can change themselves through the revolutionary experience of changing society were evidenced.

From the beginning, the Bolsheviks ruled essentially on an emergency basis. For example, they had to retain Tsarist officers to lead Red Army detachments and make alliances with unreliable elements, with sometimes disastrous consequences.

The worst area for anti-Semitism was the so-called Pale of Settlement, the area of Eastern Europe in which the Tsars decreed Jews could live. Ukraine was the major centre.

To the west of Ukraine was Hungary, where the only successful socialist revolution following the October Revoltion existed between March and November, 1919. The Bolsheviks bent every effort to force a way through to link with that revolution.

However, the legacy left by Tsarism in Ukriane was a powder keg of ethnic and class hatreds. The peasant farmers were nearly entirely Ukrainians who hated the landlords and aristocracy but also felt nationally affronted by the ethnic minority Russian workers in the industrialised urban centres.

Jews, originally corralled into the economic functions of trading and petty crafts, had started making up a significant section of the working class as it developed.

This pressure cooker of class and national antagonisms exploded in the period of the Civil War and Jews suffered badly. Some of the pogroms (McGeever says about 8% of them) were committed by Red Army detachments.

While relatively few in number, these were not minor errors of judgement by exhausted troopers, they were murderous outrages that shame revolutionaries.

It was the Jewish left nationalist organisations that raised the hue and cry about this situation. While the Party leadership did respond, at key moments organising efforts were disrupted by reactions to other events.

By 1919, Ukraine was a seething cauldron of violence. White Army forces battled Red formations, foreign armies invaded and bandit chieftains declared themselves White one moment, Red the next and then switched sides again.

“Pogromist violence in this period,” McGeever says, “was highly dependent on the support and participation of local Ukrainian peasant populations, whose political loyalty could (and did) change on a regular basis.”

Put simply, the peasants supported the Bolsheviks to the extent that they authorised land seizures from the landlords. But they baulked at a stable alliance with the urban, Russian working class and they seethed with resentment about the forced requisitions of grain the Bolsheviks had to resort to during the Civil War.

Nikifor Grigoriev was the worst of the Ukrainian pogromists. A talented military leader, at one time or another he managed to fight on all sides in the multi-faceted Ukrainian conflict.

He committed many pogroms, including while he was on the Red side. But his worst outrages occurred after he rebelled against Soviet power, using the slogan “Long Live Soviet Power, Down with the Communists, All Communists are Yids.”

McGeever says that the Bolshevik response to the Red pogroms was weak and confused. This unfortunate and inadequate response can be explained by the multiple urgent pressures they were under and the mixed consciousness of the Bolshevik base.

McGeever cites evidence, from the Bolsheviks’ own intelligence files reporting anti-Semitism “within the Red Army across the Ukraine, including among many regiments and brigades that did not carry out pogroms”.

He says the Bolshevik leadership responses were faltering. He believes this was not deliberate nor as a consequence of the pressures of events, as Serge saw it, but as a consequence of “Bolshevik discourse” overlapping with anti-Semitism.

McGreever overstates his case in saying that Bolshevik revolutionary slogans coincided with anti-Semitism. He himself explains that Bolshevik slogans denouncing capitalist speculation were weaponised by anti-Semites to specify Jewish capitalist speculators, not capitalists in general.

There are other points at which McGeever’s research does not accord with his analysis.

He emphasises the role of Jewish leftists in organising the Soviet response to pogroms and anti-Semitism. He tries to build a case that the Bolsheviks failed to respond to their lead.

However, all Russian socialists, not just the Bolshevik leaders were learning the hard way how to work together in managing society and fighting anti-Semitism. The very best of those Jewish leaders joined the Bolsheviks through their experience of working with them.

Many of those Jewish Bolsheviks led exemplary revolutionary lives and were later murdered in Stalin’s purges, which is a measure of their integrity. Stalin, as Isaac Deutscher put it, was insensitive to bloodshed, like a butcher.

He was also quite capable of anti-semitism, betraying the pronouncements and policies of the Bolshevik leadership at the time of the Revolution.

Ultimately, McGeever falls into a pessimistic nether region, where the Russian Revolution’s failings in dealing with anti-Semitism become the sins of the revolutionaries. In reality, anti-Semitism survived the Russian Revolution because the Revolution’s essential springboard, the unity of workers and peasants around the slogans of “peace, land and bread” collapsed under the strain of civil war and so-called War Communism.

That provided the material base for the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy and the cultural stain of anti-Semitism that persisted.

[Brendan McGeever can be seen explaining his research here]

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