Lenin, Revolution, and the Jewish People
Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution
by Brendan McGeever
Reviewed by Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
According to Brendan McGeever’s Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019), armed supporters of the Bolsheviks, in the Red Army in particular, were permeated with antisemitism which manifested itself in anti-Jewish propaganda and violence. Simply put, the rank-and-file and middle rung red revolutionaries unleashed themselves against the Jewish people carrying out Marxist class struggle to its logical conclusion.
The Bolshevik leadership, including Lenin, sympathized with the Jewish plight, but it was too busy with other priorities, namely defending the revolution and fighting the Civil War against the Whites, to pay too much attention to the Jewish predicament. Since the Communist leadership failed to make the fight against pogroms its priority, it was Jewish socialists who stepped in.
Some of them, after initial hesitation, joined the Bolsheviks and others remained outside the party but tactically allied themselves with Lenin. These Jewish revolutionaries staffed the so-called Jewish Commissariat in Stalin’s Commissariat of the Nationalities and the Jewish sections (Yevsektsye) of the Bolshevik party, in particular the regional apparatus in Moscow. They were the main drivers behind the red government’s moves against pogroms. They lobbied and pushed their superiors to speak out against Jews. They wrote letters and articles, as well as drafted an important Soviet decree against antisemitism. They further endeavored to launch the Kremlin’s anti-antisemitic campaigns several times, usually with meager results. But much more was done from above to stop the pogroms and curtail anti-Jewish animus, and not from the Bolshevik top. It was Jewish revolutionaries qua Jews who cared to step in.
None of this should be controversial. Why would not the Red Army men be antisemitic? They were overwhelmingly peasant or proletarians of recent rural origin, sharing in customary prejudices of their social stratum. Antisemitism was just one of them. And since Jews customarily played multiple evil roles in peasant imagination and practice, including that of “bloodsuckers,” i.e., exploiters, why would not the Red Army soldier attack them when he also attacked all others? The most benign interpretation of Lenin in this context is that he knew but looked the other way. Yet, McGeever’s monograph has caused some consternation on the Left. What? The fountain of tolerance, Lenin himself, did not care about Jews? The Bolshevik party was not a vehicle of the promised Messiah? Red Army men were not uniformly philosemitic internationalists? Horror!
McGeever was only stating the obvious. He merely publicly owed up to what should have been present in scholarly circles forever. Yet, because they are dominated by leftists, there are very few lonely voices of reason, Richard Pipes most notably, who bother to cover such issues. Therefore, first, let us look at Jewish revolutionaries and their role in 1917-1921. Then, we shall consider the context of anti-Jewish propaganda and violence. Finally, we shall hold up Lenin for scrutiny in the light of McGeever’s “revelations.”
Most Jewish revolutionaries endeavored to carry out a revolution primarily within the Jewish community itself. I am not talking about a few Bolshevik leaders of Jewish origin from the assimilationist circles. I mean Jewish revolutionaries of the shtetl, members of the Bund, Poale Zion, “Sejmists,” Folkists, Feraynigte, and other radical parties. Their aim was, first and foremost, to destroy their community through revolutionary violence and create a paradise on earth for their people. Like other leftists, inspired by Marx in particular, they wanted the victory of the Jewish proletariat led by themselves. Where it did not exist, the radicals wanted to turn the surviving Jews into one. Lenin approved because he shared their utopian aims. Hence, after initial hesitation, many Jewish non-Bolshevik revolutionaries joined the Communists.
What about other Jews? Traditionalist and religious? Liberal or capitalist? Generally, what about non-revolutionary Jews, who constituted the majority of the people, including in the Pale of Jewish Settlement? Lenin treated them instrumentally. For propaganda purposes, he beat the progressive drums of philosemitism, which sold well particularly in the West. But in reality, the Bolshevik leader considered religious Jews as dupes and reactionaries, and Jewish entrepreneurs, merchants, industrialists, and financers as bourgeois class enemies. Thus, the red dictator supported those who exterminated them radically.
At the beginning of the 20th century already, Lenin praised the antisemitic Black Hundreds and “dark” peasants because of their “democratic” and revolutionary potential. Similarly, he related to the pogromists between 1917 and 1921. He supported them because, dialectically, they served the revolution. All was fine so long as they destroyed the “bourgeoisie.” And most of the Jewish population happened not to be classical Marxist proletariat, but entrepreneurs of various levels, mainly of the petit bourgeoisie kind, in particular in Ukraine and White Ruthenia.
In the Spring of 1918, a pogrom wave swept those lands. As Brendan McGeever reveals, in most instances at the time the perpetrators stemmed from the Red Army and various Red Guards as well as their allied forces. Ultimately, millions of people died at their hands, including tens or even hundreds of thousands of Jews. This was the classical example of plying the revolution by pogroms and legitimizing Soviet power via violence, including anti-Jewish violence. Lenin and his comrades did essentially nothing to stop the wave. It played into their hands.
Only on July 27, 1918, after more than three months of anti-Jewish terror, under the influence of his Jewish underlings at the Moscow center, did Lenin issue a decree condemning the pogroms and threatening the perpetrators potentially with the death penalty. In theory, it sounded serious. The propaganda echo of the decree was unequivocal. However, in practice, the execution of the decree was rather “limited,” as McGeever himself admits. The decree was intended primarily to restore discipline within the Red Army, which was permeated by anarchic antisemitism and remained the main source of anti-Jewish violence until 1919.
From a long-term perspective, however, the decree was formulated in such a way to target primarily those who fought against Soviet power, which, secondarily, also allowed for protecting the Jewish population. In practice, only these Jews who were considered pro-revolutionary would be protected. The others were left to their own devices, if not repressed. A Bolshevik propaganda leaflet of May 1919 expressed this unequivocally: “Remember, if a Jew stands on the side of the workers’ and peasants’ revolution, they are one of us, like a Ukrainian or a Russian” (p. 123). And what if he did not stand there? What if he was neutral? He who is not with us is against us. Slaughter the class enemy! Such was the ruthlessness of the Bolshevik logic.
The same logic concerned the pogromshchiki. If they did not fight against the Soviet power, if they were allied with it, or if, indeed, they were the Soviet power itself, Lenin and his comrades made sure not to execute the decree with much severity. They tolerated the pogromshchiki. The Bolshevik practice allowed for further – albeit more camouflaged – practicing of anti-Jewish violence. In reality then, the decree aimed at centralizing Bolshevik power, i.e., Lenin’s dictatorship, in the Ukrainian lands particularly. Those who resisted centralization were crushed. The decree served as a tool; its apparent pro-Jewish slant was just a convenient device to take care of the party’s business. The pogromshchiki who subordinated themselves to the Kremlin were cherished, the prime example being the Bolshevik Cavalry Army, the Konarmiya, as described by Isaac Babel.
Naturally, the Communists would cyclically issue stern and fearsome declarations against antisemitism, although not too often. There were no official outbursts, however, against Communist antisemitism, even at the local level. It was usually covered up. Not much resulted from such propaganda eruptions, except when the pogroms would take on an anti-Soviet edge. Then Lenin and the comrades would feel threatened and they would react decisively. However, if the violence expressed itself solely in an antisemitic form, the Kremlin did not consider the defense of the Jewish population as its priority. This rule held until the Red victory in the Civil War. McGeever unequivocally states that “Pogromist violence, then, was a crime first and foremost because it represented a threat to the Soviet state, not to Jews as such” (p. 118). And further: “For the Bolshevik leadership, however, the central issue was not the plight of the Jews of Chernihiv, but the survival of the Soviet state which, as noted above, was by no means certain” (p. 85-86).
When the Bolsheviks resolved to react to anti-Jewish violence, it was not so much about halting the pogroms as about taming the antisemitism within the Red Army because it threatened the internal discipline of the Communist armed forces and, thus, it constituted an existential threat for the control of the red military by the Kremlin. Sometimes punishment was truly meted out, including executions, for participating in pogroms and other antisemitic deeds, but that was only so when such excesses threatened Soviet power. The welfare of the Jews was of quite secondary importance for the Bolshevik leadership.
As far as the real attitude of Lenin toward the Jews, one should focus on secret instructions of the Fall of 1919. In November, Lenin ordered to exclude Jews from the Soviet government in Ukraine to neutralize the antisemites and to strengthen the Communist regime. He judged that there were too many Jews in the Bolshevik local structures, causing anti-authority sentiment among Soviet supporters and others; the best course of action was to get rid of the Jews. Hence, Lenin promised to choke Ukraine’s Jews and Christian burghers “in barbed wire gloves” (vziat v jeżovyie rukavitsy, p.193 n. 43), or, as Richard Pipe rather aptly translated it (to McGeevers loudly apologetic protestations) to treat them with “an iron rod.”
In other words, Lenin wanted to smash the Jews. Why? This was because the correlation of forces dictated that Lenin dialectically preferred over the Jewish people their antisemitic adversaries, local revolutionaries, who constituted a majority on the ground. In 1917 and 1918, the Bolshevik power based itself on urban Red Guards, which mainly consisted of the Russian minority (and sometimes the units of Jewish self-defense and party militias which tactically collaborated with the Russians). In 1919-1921, the majority of the Bolshevik forces (perhaps even 90%) consisted of insurgent and partisan groups, bands, and units recruited among the rural element. As McGeever puts it, “In sum, antisemitism had its basis in the overwhelmingly partisan composition of the Red Army in Ukraine: the worldview of the Bolsheviks’ social base contrasted sharply with that of the Party leadership” (p. 94).
Red guerrillas originated from the people, chiefly the peasantry, or freshly baked workers of rustic origin. The rank-and-file Reds were overwhelmingly anti-Jewish. This stemmed from their ancient attitudes. During the revolution, their prejudices took on a Marxist form of class struggle. It was in essence a modernized version of a jacquerie of the so-called “black people” (tshern). In other words, in this antisemitic form, they practiced their class struggle. It complemented their ruthless practice of the same Marxist animus against the landed nobility, intelligentsia, and other “bourgeoisie,” who, after all, were not Jewish, and, yet, their slaughter was virtually indistinguishable from the murder of the Jewish people.
Outside of the territories of central Russia, where the Jewish minority was small, the Leninist slogan “rob that which was robbed” (grab nagralyonnoe) targeted – aside from the landed nobility, intelligentsia, officials, and entrepreneurs – primarily Ukrainian and Belarusian Jews. The very same mob, who, to the great delight of the Bolsheviks, murdered the “white hands” (bialoruchki) and “lords,” (baren’) also slaughtered Jews. Lenin very much supported the orgy of anarchy. It did not matter to him that it also enveloped the Jewish people as well. He never stopped the murder, violence, and robbery. Anarchy was convenient for him until such time when all laid in ruins and upon them, the Bolshevik leader could build his utopian Soviet power.
Furthermore, as we have already mentioned, a rather large part of the Jewish community constituted also the middle class, i.e., the hated “bourgeoisie.” Why would Lenin show mercy toward the Jewish “class enemy?” Why would the Soviet dictator support Jewish political orientations, such as Zionism or Orthodoxy, which inculcated the Jewish masses with a separate national identity and solidified the Judaic faith, thus dragging them away from the egalitarian Soviet cauldron? Moreover, let us remember that in congruence with the zigzagging of the dialectic, Lenin was capable of conducting a policy that dictated getting rid of Jewish Communists from Soviet institutions to appease the mob and other antisemites. The Bolshevik dictator enjoyed in this endeavor the support of many a comrade, including those of Jewish origin, at the top of the Communist power structure.
In this context, it is obvious that the Bolshevik vozhdzh was unequivocally hostile to the Jewish people. At best, he treated Jews instrumentally to earn propaganda capital in the West as an alleged defender of the Jewish community against antisemitism. At worst, cynically and dialectically, he permitted the Jewish people to be mass murdered. In other words, Lenin approached Jews as he did other people: instrumentally, hatefully, class-wise.
Let us also remember that Lenin and his Communists endeavored to create an egalitarian paradise on earth based upon the “proletariat.” In this sense, their system automatically imposed a total uniformity. Marxism dictated that there was no room for anything other than an abstract “proletariat.” Therefore, Communism excluded all particularisms and anything else disturbing the project to uniformize the human race. This also concerned national, religious, and cultural characteristics. For those reasons, Bolshevism lacked space for Jews qua Jews, both religious and secular.
Doctrinally, Communism was not equipped to accommodate anyone “Other.” This was so in theory at least, which most scholars tend to ignore, including lately Brendan McGeever. However, it was flexible dialectics that dictated the Marxist praxis. It instrumentalized the Jews, which Robert S. Wistrich pointed out so astutely. One should be divested of any illusion that when Kenneth Moss wrote about a “Jewish Renaissance” in Russia, this concerned primarily the eight months following the February Revolution of 1917. The Bolshevik coup and seizure of power in October 1917 as well as the ongoing revolution and Civil War, transformed the “Jewish Renaissance” first into a false dawn for secular intellectuals, who wanted to marry Jewish nationalism with liberal cosmopolitism. Next, hell erupted for traditional Jews and others, including the center-right and centrist Jewish intelligentsia; sometime later, the progressives and even Jewish Communists and their leftist collaborators felt the short end of the stick. Incidentally, this ravenous socialist process swallowed up not only Jews but also all other slaves of the Kremlin, Ukrainians for example, who likewise initially rejoiced at the possibility of their national “Renaissance.” All were to become Soviets.
Perhaps one should be more precise: Almost all. From the very beginning, the Bolsheviks excluded from the ranks of human beings the so-called “former people” (byvsheye ludi) and “outlawed people” (lishentsi). They were treated as permanent “class enemies.” There were among them, first and foremost, the representatives of Russia’s pre-revolutionary elites, including Jews, as described by Golfo Alexopoulos, Douglas Smith, and Eric Lohr. Then others joined the ranks of the “counter-revolutionaries.” The definition of a “class enemy” proved to be infinitely elastic, and the rapaciousness of terror proved to be omnivorous. Ultimately, it also devoured the mythical “Judeo-Bolsheviks.” This is simply the logic of the revolution. It stems from the intolerant nature of Marxism-Leninism, which is predicated on hatred expressed as class struggle. It also originated in the intolerant personality of the leader of the revolution in Russia himself. He could not stand anyone who disagreed with him. Lenin created the foundations of the system which Stalin and others continued after him in the same form.
Lenin and his Bolsheviks were convinced, of course, that their revolution means liberation for everyone, including Jews. Strategically, they were utopians after all, and believed that their apocalyptic, Marxist formula for life is fabulous for everyone. And the dialectics dictated that the “Jewish question” be used as they saw fit at any given moment. Too bad McGeevor failed to grasp much about Lenin and his comrades in his The Bolshevik Response to Antisemitism in the Russian Revolution. As a man of the Left, he sadly cannot see the forest for the trees.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 1 August 2020