SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 229 June 2019

Radical Jewish history

Revolutionary Yiddishland: a history of Jewish radicalism

By Alain Brossat and Sylvia Klingberg

Published by Verso, 2017, £9.99

Reviewed by Iain Dalton

Over the last year or so, as the Corbyn wing of the Labour Party has been attacked repeatedly by the right wing, aided by the capitalist media, a major line of their attack has been around allegations of antisemitism. This is to the extent that some may wonder whether, historically, there has been an antipathy on the left towards the Jews.

Revolutionary Yiddishland is an excellent book to demolish such ideas. While it uses archival material, its main sources are from interviews with former left-wing Jewish activists living in Israel in 1983. This gives a certain grounding to the generalisation of these experiences attempted in the book.

Tracing as it does the main tendencies of the pre-second world war Jewish left, it recounts how being a Jew was often equated with being a Communist. Thus it should be no surprise that numerous leaders of the Bolshevik party and the Communist (Third) International came from a Jewish background, including Leon Trotsky, Lev Kamenev, Karl Radek, Grigory Zinoviev and Yakov Sverdlov. In fact, a third of the Bolshevik party Central Committee elected in March 1918 were in this category.

By ‘Revolutionary Yiddishland’ the book refers to the areas of central, eastern and Russian Europe which were home to significant numbers of Jews, often living as peasants or in parts of cities primarily speaking Yiddish. Zionism at that time was a minority force and those left-wing Jews were split between three organisations or orientations: the Bund, socialist Zionist organisations including Poale Zion, and the Marxist movement.

The Bund was the oldest specifically Jewish workers’ movement and claimed ‘cultural-national autonomy’ for Jews within the movement. While it strove to be part of the social-democratic parties of the Second International – and, later, parts of it in the Communist International – it tried to claim it was the sole voice of Jewish workers. On the one hand, this drew substantial layers of freshly proletarianised Jews into the workers’ movement. On the other, it helped reinforce their isolation from the wider movement.

Poale Zion was a Zionist organisation that believed in the establishment of a separate Jewish homeland. Those Jews who joined Marxist parties, while not rejecting their Jewish heritage – some parties of the Communist International produced Yiddish-language newspapers – did so because they saw the need to organise primarily on a class basis.

The book deals in some depth with the contributions of Jewish left-wing activists in the Spanish civil war and in the resistance to Nazi Germany across Europe, in the run-up to and during the second world war. It also has some interesting material on why these Jewish activists came to settle in Israel, even though many were still opposed to the basis upon which it was founded.

In this section some of the heroic campaigning for workers’ unity by the early Palestine Communist Party is recounted, including setting up ‘unity’ clubs: "They were founded following the expulsion from the Histadrut of the workers’ faction inspired by the communists. In fact, these had campaigned for the Histadrut to be opened to Arabs, a claim that came up against the Zionist optic according to which the dual objective of this unusual ‘trade union federation’ was the promotion of the Jewish economy and the promotion of Jewish labour, implying an active boycott of Arab work and goods by the ysihuv – the Jewish community in Palestine. In the Unity clubs, on the other hand, communists sought to bring together Jewish and Arab workers, just as they campaigned for a trade union federation on a class rather than a national basis".

Such activity came in the face of severe repression, both from Jewish institutions and the British colonial police. Yet the red thread running through the book is the impact of the 1917 Russian revolution. Initially, the Bund and Poale Zion supported the Mensheviks – social-democratic reformists who had participated in the pro-capitalist governments following Russia’s February 1917 revolution. The Bund had joined the Mensheviks’ walkout of the Soviets in protest at the October revolution. Nonetheless, significant sections of these organisations were won over to communism.

Brossat and Klingberg put this conversion largely down to seeing the programmes of the Bolshevik Reds and reactionary Whites (who the Mensheviks supported) being put into practice in the civil war which unfolded in 1918: "In the face of the pogroms launched throughout Russia at the instigation of the Whites, the Bolsheviks equated antisemitism with counter-revolution and applied the rigours of martial law to pogromists, thus appearing the sole rampart against this new horror. Active support for the new power, engagement in the ranks of the revolution, then seemed the only solution for many Jews whose foundations of life had been undermined. Many of them joined the Communist Party during the civil war or shortly after, swelling the ranks of the new administration or enlisting in the Red Army".

Like many parts of the movement, Jewish communists were affected by the isolation of the revolution in Russia and the rise of Stalinism. From 1927 onwards the suppression of ‘nationalist’ tendencies in Yiddish literature began, contrasting with the freedom prior to this that saw publications even by Yiddish writers who had left the Soviet Union. Linked to this were various schemes to help settle displaced and unemployed Jews. Initially, in 1923, the ‘Crimean project’ allowed Jews who wished to ‘return to the land’ to do so in South Ukraine and around the Sea of Azov.

This project held a real attraction to the Jewish masses: "The lands that the Soviet state allocated to the new colonists were located in a region close to the old centres of Jewish life, they were generally quite fertile, and the project registered positive results. The great plan to harness hundreds of thousands of Jews to agricultural production then presented itself as a revolutionary, Soviet alternative to a Zionist colonisation chained to the cart of imperialism. The year 1928 saw an astonishing event in which a group of seventy people arrived in Odessa from Palestine to found a peasant community in Crimea".

Yet this was cut short by a new project in Birobidzhan on the border with Manchuria, promoted by the Stalinist bureaucracy seemingly for military purposes. This project was opposed by many Jewish communists, and was largely a failure: "By the end of 1933, some 19,635 people had migrated to Birobidzhan, but 11,450 had returned". Brossat and Klingberg speculate: "It might even be that in the minds of certain leaders this military calculation was accompanied by a rather Machiavellian idea of creating on the Far Eastern borders of the USSR a kind of distant red ghetto that would concentrate part of a Jewish intelligentsia that was too freethinking".

Alain Brossat and Sylvia Klingberg report that most of their interviewees had not reconciled themselves to Zionism, despite living in Israel. They put this apparent contradiction down to a "conversion to realism", based on the fact that their families had emigrated there, but also on the weight of the defeats and disappointments in the inter-war and post-war periods, without which we could be living in a world where antisemitism had already been relegated to the past.

Home About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page