Chapter IV: The Russian Revolution: Bolshevism, the Bund, and Stalinism

By Yossi Schwartz, Revolutionary Communist International Tendency (RCIT), July 2015,

Yossi Schwartz continues his analysis by looking at the position of the Jews in the Russian Revolution and the re-emergence of anti-Semitism under Stalinism.

In 1898, the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) was formed. From the very beginning many of its leaders were Jews. The two wings of the party, both the reformist Mensheviks and the revolutionary Bolsheviks, opposed the notion that the Jews were a nation and opposed all manifestations of anti-Semitism. The position of the Bolsheviks was that the fight against all forms of chauvinism required the unification of all the workers in a single party. For this reason Lenin clashed with the Bund, a party that was formed in 1897, one year before the RSDLP. At that time, the Bund could also claim to have more genuine working-class support than any other Social-Democratic organization in Russia.

The Allgemeiner Yiddisher Arbeiterbund, the General Union of Jewish Workers of Lithuania, Poland and Russia, commonly known as the Bund, was founded in Vilna. This party united different groups of Jewish workers. Initially, the organization conducted its activities in Russian, but from 1910 onwards, Yiddish was officially recognized by the Bund as the Jewish national language.

Whilst the party was opposed to Zionism, and the Zionist demand for emigration to Palestine, it gradually slipped into increasingly nationalist positions. At its third conference held in Kovno in 1899, the Bund still firmly rejected any nationalist demands, stressing that such agitation would carry the risk of diverting the workers from the class struggle and break up working-class solidarity. But this would happen at the Bialystok congress in 1901. The majority, using Otto Bauer and the Austro-Marxists' doctrine of national-cultural autonomy, declared that the concept of nationality applied to the Jewish people as well, although there was as yet no demand for the Jewish workers to be organized separately. That step would come in 1903. In 1903, at the second RSDLP congress after the majority of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks refused to recognize the Bund as the sole representative of the Jewish working class, the Bundists split.

Lenin was very aware of the terrible oppression of the Jews, who were suffering from systematic discrimination, were subject to bloody pogroms, and forced to live in the Pales (a series of laws were established by the Monarchy determining where Jews could settle in the Empire, these regions later were called the Pale of Settlement. The Pale included all regions of former Poland, Ukraine and others. The region of Latvia only partially belonged to the Pale), and subject to bloody pogroms. This however was not a reason, in Lenin's opinion, to split the working class on national lines. The opposite was actually the case. The struggle against all forms of oppression demanded the unity of all workers, including those that belonged to the oppressed nations and those that belonged to the oppressor nation - the Russians. As for the Bund invoking the idea of a Jewish nation, Lenin wrote: "Unfortunately, however, this Zionist idea is absolutely false and essentially reactionary.”

Karl Kautsky, one of the most prominent Marxist theoreticians at that time, said: “The Jews have ceased to be a nation, for a nation without a territory is unthinkable," (see No. 42 of Iskra and the separate reprint from it, The Kishinev Massacre and the Jewish Question, page 3). Examining the problem of nationalities in Austria, the same writer endeavoured to give a scientific definition of the concept nationality and established two principal criteria of a nationality: language and territory (Neue Zeit, 1903, No. 2). A French Jew, the radical Alfred Naquet, says practically the same thing, word for word, in his controversy with the anti-Semites and the Zionists. “If it pleased Bernard Lazare," he writes of the well known Zionist, “to consider himself a citizen of a separate nation, that is his affair; but I declare that, although I was born a Jew... I do not recognise Jewish nationality.... I belong to no other nation but the French.... Are the Jews a nation? Although they were one in the remote past, my reply is a categorical negative. The concept nation implies certain conditions which do not exist in this case. A nation must have a territory on which to develop, and, in our time at least, until a world confederation has extended this basis, a nation must have a common language. And the Jews no longer have either a territory or a common language.... Like myself, Bernard Lazare probably did not know a word of Hebrew, and would have found it no easy matter, if Zionism had achieved its purpose, to make himself under stood to his co-racials [cong~n~res] from other parts of the world(La Petite R~publique, September 24, 1903).

Furthermore in Iskra one can find the following:

German and French Jews are quite unlike Polish and Russian Jews. The characteristic features of the Jews include nothing that bears the imprint [empreinte] of nationality. If it were permissible to recognise the Jews as a nation, as Drumont does, it would be an artificial nation. The modern Jew is a product of the unnatural selection to which his forebears were subjected for nearly eighteen centuries. All that remains for the Bundists is to develop the theory of a separate Russian-Jewish nation, whose language is Yiddish and their territory the Pale of Settlement" (The Position of the Bund in the Party. First Published: October 22, 1903 in Iskra, No. 51)

Clearly, Lenin followed Kautsky in defining the Jews in Eastern Europe not as a nation but as a special oppressed urbanized caste: "The same applies," he wrote, "to the most oppressed and persecuted nation, the Jews. Jewish national culture is the slogan of the rabbis and the bourgeoisie, a slogan of our enemies. But there are other elements in Jewish culture and throughout the history of the Jews. Of the ten and a half million Jews throughout the world, a little over half live in Galicia and Russia, backward and semi-barbarous countries, which forcibly keep the Jews in the position of a caste. The other half live in the civilised world, and there the Jews are not segregated as a caste. There, the great world-progressive features of Jewish culture have clearly made themselves felt: its internationalism, its responsiveness to the advanced movements of the epoch (the percentage of Jews in the democratic and proletarian movement is everywhere higher than the percentage of Jews in the population as a whole)." (LCW 20. Critical Remarks on the National Question, October-December 1913.)

After the October revolution, the Bolsheviks offered self-determination to the Jews, granting them Birobidjan as a homeland to which they could emigrate if they so wished. This was in line with their policy toward all ethnic groups, even those that had not reached full nationhood. However, the project in Birobidjan failed. This had to do with 3 main factors. First, the Jews were urbanized and unlikely to move from the centers to an agrarian region. Secondly, the rise of Stalinism brought with it among other things the old anti-Semitism, and thirdly, there was a lot of Zionist pressure against the project. All of these combined put an end to this project.

On this question Trotsky wrote: "The Friends of the USSR are satisfied with the creation of Birobidjan. I will not stop at this point to consider whether it was built on a sound foundation, and what type of regime exists there. (Birobidjan cannot help reflecting all the vices of bureaucratic despotism.) But not a single progressive, thinking individual will object to the USSR designating a special territory for those of its citizens who feel themselves to be Jews, who use the Jewish language in preference to all others and who wish to live as a compact mass. Is this or is this not a ghetto? During the period of Soviet democracy, of completely voluntary migrations, there could be no talk about ghettos. But the Jewish question, by the very manner in which settlements of Jews occurred, assumes an international aspect. Are we not correct in saying that a world socialist federation would have to make possible the creation of a "Birobidjan" for those Jews who wish to have their own autonomous republic as the arena for their own culture? It may be presumed that a socialist democracy will not resort to compulsory assimilation. It may very well be that within two or three generations the boundaries of an independent Jewish republic, as of many other national regions, will be erased. I have neither time nor desire to meditate on this. Our descendents will know better than we what to do. I have in mind a transitional historical period when the Jewish question, as such, is still acute and demands adequate measures from a world federation of workers' states. The very same methods of solving the Jewish question which under decaying capitalism have a utopian and reactionary character (Zionism), will, under the regime of a socialist federation, take on a real and salutary meaning. This is what I wanted to point out. How could any Marxist, or even any consistent democrat, object to this?" (Trotsky: Thermidor and Anti-Semitism, 1937)

Naturally, national rights do not and cannot exist if they involve the oppression of another nation. This is why Marxists reject the assertion by many reformists and centrists that the Jewish people in Israel possess the “right of national self-determination.” Such a notion is contrary to the principles of national justice as well as those of Marxism.


The Marxist classics and the right of national self-determination


Marxists understand the right of national self-determination as a revolutionary democratic right of oppressed nations. This was also always the meaning and understanding of the Marxist classics on this question. Lenin underlined again and again that it is the division of nations into oppressor and oppressed which forms the essence of imperialism“. (V. I. Lenin: The revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination (1915); in: LCW 21, p. 409.)

For Lenin and Trotsky it was clear that the right of national self-determination applies for oppressed nations and not for oppressor nations. In every major document on the national question, they made this clear as the following selection of quotes demonstartes.

Socialists cannot achieve their great aim without fighting against all oppression of nations. They must, therefore, unequivocally demand that the Social-Democratic parties of the oppressor countries (especially of the so-called “Great” Powers) should recognise and champion the oppressed nation’s right to self-determination, in the specifically political sense of the term, i.e., the right to political secession. The socialist of a ruling or a colonial nation who does not stand for that right is a chauvinist.” (V.I. Lenin: Socialism and War (1915); in: CW 21, pp.316-17)

Victorious socialism must necessarily establish a full democracy and, consequently, not only introduce full equality of nations but also realise the right of the oppressed nations to self-determination, i.e., the right to free political separation.” (V. I. Lenin: The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination (1916); in: LCW 22, p. 143)

As regards the right of the nations oppressed by the tsarist monarchy to self-determination, i.e., the right to secede and form independent states, the Social-Democratic Party must unquestionably champion this right.” (V. I. Lenin: Resolution on the National Question. Resolution of the Summer 1913 Joint Conference of the Central Committee of the R.S.D.L.P. and Party Officials (1913); in: LCW 19, p. 428)

That is why the focal point in the Social-Democratic programme must be that division of nations into oppressor and oppressed which forms the essence of imperialism, and is deceitfully evaded by the social-chauvinists and Kautsky. This division is not significant from the angle of bourgeois pacifism or the philistine Utopia of peaceful competition among independent nations under capitalism, but it is most significant from the angle of the revolutionary struggle against imperialism. It is from this division that our definition of the “right of nations to self-determination” must follow, a definition that is consistently democratic, revolutionary, and in accord with the general task of the immediate struggle for socialism.” (V. I. Lenin: The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination, in: LCW 21, p. 409)

The right of nations to self-determination implies exclusively the right to independence in the political sense, the right to free political separation from the oppressor nation. (…) It implies only a consistent expression of struggle against all national oppression.“ (V. I. Lenin: The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination, in: LCW 22, p. 146)

In its program, the Bolshevik Party also spoke about the right of national self-determination and thus the right to separate in connection with the oppressed people:

In order to remove mistrust felt on the part of the working class masses of the oppressed countries towards the proletariat of those states which oppressed them, it is necessary to abolish all privileges of any national group, to proclaim the full equality of nations and to recognize the rights of colonies and dependent nations to state separation.” (Program of the RKP(b): adopted March 22, 1919 at the Eighth Congress of the Russian Communist Party; in: Robert H. McNeal and Richard Gregor: Resolutions and decisions of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Vol.2, The Early Soviet Period: 1917-1929, University of Toronto Press, Toronto 1974, p.61)

This is also how Trotsky understood the Bolsheviks and his own approach towards the national question:

But the very conjuncture of the national movements with struggle of the proletariat for power was made politically possible only thanks to the fact that the Bolsheviks during the whole of their history carried on an irreconcilable struggle with the Great Russian oppressors, supporting always and without reservations the right of the oppressed nations to self-determination, including separation from Russia. The policy of Lenin in regard to the oppressed nations did not, however, have anything in common with the policy of the epigones. The Bolshevik Party defended the right of the oppressed nations to self-determination with the methods of the proletarian class struggle.” (Leon Trotsky: On the South African Theses (1935); in: Trotsky Writings 1934-35, p. 251)


Stalinism and Anti-Semitism


Lenin and the Bolsheviks fought anti-Semitism before the revolution as well as after the workers took power. Whereas the Soviet Government under Lenin not only repealed all the discriminatory laws against the Jews and made anti-Semitism a crime, under Stalin the old anti-Semitism that had been suppressed, raised its ugly head again. It was part of the reactionary political counter-revolution. In his war with the Left Opposition, Stalin exploited the anti-Semitic tendencies in the country.

In “Thermidor and Anti-Semitism”, written in 1938, Trotsky explained the roots of anti-Semitism in the former USSR:

The October Revolution abolished the outlawed status of the Jews. That, however, does not at all mean that with one blow it swept out anti-Semitism. A long and persistent struggle against religion has failed to prevent suppliants even today from crowding thousands and thousands of churches, mosques and synagogues. The same situation prevails in the sphere of national prejudices. Legislation alone does not change people. Their thoughts, emotions, outlook depend upon tradition, material conditions of life, cultural level, etc. The Soviet regime is not yet twenty years old. The older half of the population was educated under Czarism. The younger half has inherited a great deal from the older. These general historical conditions in themselves should make any thinking person realize that, despite the model legislation of the October Revolution, it is impossible that national and chauvinist prejudices, particularly anti-Semitism, should not have persisted strongly among the backward layers of the population.

But this is by no means all. The Soviet regime, in actuality, initiated a series of new phenomena which, because of the poverty and low cultural level of the population, were capable of generating anew, and did in fact generate, anti-Semitic moods. The Jews are a typical city population. They comprise a considerable percentage of the city population in the Ukraine, in White Russia and even in Great Russia. The Soviet, more than any other regime in the world, needs a very great number of civil servants. Civil servants are recruited from the more cultured city population. Naturally the Jews occupied a disproportionately large place among the bureaucracy and particularly so in the lower and middle levels. Of course we can close our eyes to that fact and limit ourselves to vague generalities about the equality and brotherhood of all races. But an ostrich policy will not advance us a single step. The hatred of the peasants and the workers for the bureaucracy is a fundamental fact of Soviet life. The despotism of the regime, the persecution of every critic, the stifling of every living though, finally the judicial frame-ups are merely a reflection of this basic fact. Even by a priori reasoning it is impossible not to conclude that the hatred for the bureaucracy would assume an anti-Semitic color, at least in those places where the Jewish functionaries compose a significant percentage of the population and are thrown into relief against a broad background of the peasant masses.”

National and chauvinist prejudices, particularly anti-Semitism, continued to exist after the revolution. Not only this, but under the Stalinist bureaucracy anti-Semitism among the masses was based once again on the particular characterization of the Jewish population on one hand, and the attitude of the privileged layer of the bureaucracy toward the Jews on the other. The Jews, being urbanized and educated, disproportionately became members of the bureaucracy, particularly so in the lower and middle levels. The hatred of the peasants and the workers for the bureaucracy, as a fundamental fact of Soviet life, was focused against those bureaucrats they faced daily, many of whom were Jews. The privileged bureaucracy, fearful of its privileges, exploited the most ingrained prejudices of the masses in order to protect itself. And if this was not bad enough the Soviet regime under Stalin initiated a series of judicial frame-ups after the Second World War against the Jews. Soviet life was characterized by bureaucratic abuse, similar to the suffering of the Palestinians under the Israeli occupation who require the service of the Israeli bureaucracy set up to deal with them. Bribery, corruption, embezzlement, the violation of women and the like are daily events. From time to time the top bureaucrats feel the need to protect themselves by demonstrative trials. In the case of the Soviet Union, Jews comprised a significant percentage in such trials. For self-preservation, the leading cadre of the bureaucracy in the main centers and in the provinces diverted the indignation of the working class away from the bureaucracy.

In the struggle against the Opposition, the top bureaucrats used any weapon they could. Not only was Trotsky's son Sergei Sedov accused of a massive poisoning of working people, but Trotsky himself was accused of being behind all the crimes that were committed in the Soviet Union. Stalin's propaganda machine fostered the prejudices and anti-Semitism of the masses against the ‘cosmopolitan’ Jews that were in the camp of Trotsky and his son, who were Jews themselves. Fostering the anti-Semitism of the backward masses began after Zinoviev and Kamanev joined the Left Opposition. The Stalinists shamelessly spoke of the three "dissatisfied Jewish intellectuals”. To reinforce the point Jews were removed from positions. The slogan "Beat the Opposition" often took on the colors of the old slogan "Beat the Jews and save Russia." Stalin himself came out with a printed statement which declared: "We fight against Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev not because they are Jews but because they are Oppositionists." For every thinking person it was clear that while Stalin himself formally spoke against the excesses of Anti-Semitism, the message he was getting across was that the Oppositionists were Jews.

After the assassination of Trotsky by a Stalinist agent, anti-Semitism continued in the former Soviet Union. There were two known trials against the Jews. The first one took place between 1948 and 1952, and was precipitated by Stalin's growing paranoia about Soviet Jews. All the victims were members of the so-called Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, set up with Stalin's approval during World War II to rally financial support, mainly from wealthy Americans, for the Soviet war effort. Stalin felt the need to repress the Jews because he himself fostered Jewish nationalism in the former USSR by supporting the partition of Palestine.

With the birth of the state of Israel and the start of the Cold War, he felt he could no longer rely on Jews as loyal citizens. He believed that they held loyalty both to the state he controlled and to the state he helped to create. A state-sanctioned trip by Committee members to the United States in 1943 was presented during the trial as espionage, because sending propaganda material to the West was deemed as divulging classified information. A request to resettle displaced Holocaust survivors in the Crimean peninsula was labeled a sinister plot to declare the region independent from the Soviet Union.

In 1953 Stalin alleged the existence of a "Doctors' Plot," masterminded by Jews, to poison the top Soviet leadership. Stalin died before a trial could be called, but he had been planning to forcibly deport two million Jews to Siberia. The dictator died soon after and it was possible that his non-Jewish assistants who feared for their lives poisoned him. The executions for “economic crimes” of the early 1960s were directed largely against Jews.

Thus the situation had come full circle. The 1917 socialist revolution had laid the basis for the eradication of anti-Semitism. It had also laid the basis for the eradication of all forms of discrimination. Had the revolution spread to other countries there could have been a harmonious movement towards genuine socialism. On the basis of the planned economy everyone could have had a guaranteed job, decent housing, good health care, good quality education, etc. In the long run racism and all forms of discrimination can only be eradicated by removing the economic conditions upon which it flourishes.

As the revolution was isolated in one backward country, it degenerated and a bureaucracy usurped political power. This became a fetter on the development of the Soviet Union. With growing social problems the bureaucracy reverted to some of the dirty methods of the old Tsarist regime, including anti-Semitism.

However, the short period in which a relatively healthy workers’ state existed in the Soviet Union (early 1920s) we had a glimpse of what would be possible under genuine socialism. Anti-Semitism still exists today, together with all the other forms of discrimination. Our task today is to continue the struggles of the Bolsheviks. Once socialism becomes a world system, then all the material conditions will be established through which all forms of racism and discrimination will be eradicated once and for all.