Leon Trotsky’s Position on Anti-Semitism, Zionism and the Perspectives of the Jewish Question
From New Interventions, Vol.5 No.2, 1994
This is the text of a speech given at the Annual General Meeting of the Revolutionary History journal in October 1993.
Trotsky’s attitude to the Jewish question was that of the majority of assimilated Jewish revolutionaries in Russia around 1900. Since then the conviction became dominant, that a worldwide transformation from capitalism to socialism seen as possible in a predictable future could eliminate in Russia (and in other countries of the Jewish "diaspora") all the social barriers which segregated Jews from non-Jews. The process of assimilation imposed by capitalism should reach a higher level in a socialist society as part of a worldwide process of assimilation. This process should not exclude any nation. Consequently, Lenin regarded the best possible integration of the Jews in the ranks of the socialist movement as a prerequisite for, and as a part of, a successful revolutionary policy for resolving the Jewish question.
The General Jewish Workers’ Bund of Russia, Poland and Lithuania, on the other hand, denied the possibility of an integration of East European Jews by assimilation. Inside and outside the workers’ movement only a national development of the Jews would be feasible. From that standpoint the Bund sharply opposed Zionism; even more sharply than other Social Democrats did. It should be noted that not the national conception of the Bund itself, but the separatist attitude to the question of party organisation, was the reason for the conflict with the Bolsheviks and especially with Lenin.2 All these different standpoints were based on the conception of resolving the Jewish question in these countries where Jews lived, not in Palestine. An emigration proposed by the Zionists could not substitute a struggle for emancipation of the Jews in their respective countries.
But a Zionist left, Trotsky predicted, would inevitably find its way into the ranks of the revolutionary movement; for the rest, the Bund would become their political home. This organisation, although anti-Zionist, would become more and more similar to the Zionists in stressing all-Jewish matters. It would be quite possible that the Bund would inherit Zionist ideas.
Almost ninety years later, we know how false this prediction was. The Bund remained an ardent critic of Zionism. Trotsky could not foresee the fact that a future Zionist left (the Poale Zion in particular) would foster the Bundist position of anti-Zionism and "diaspora-nationalism". The question whether under different conditions the Bund should have made some concessions to Zionism in order to absorb some dissatisfied Zionists remains unanswered. But it was at that time nearly unthinkable.
Stalin and Anti-Semitism
After the riots of August 1929 in Palestine, and particularly after fascism was established in Germany, and the new wave of migration to Palestine, Trotsky was faced with the new dimensions of the Jewish question and with the various ways for its solution, Zionism included. In February 1934 he gave an interview to the American Trotskyist paper The Class Struggle.13 Asked whether the riots in Palestine, when Arab and Jewish militants clashed head-on, represented an uprising of oppressed Arab toiling masses, Trotsky replied that he did not know enough about the subject to determine to what degree "elements such as national liberationists (anti-imperialists)" were present and to what degree "reactionary Mohammedans and anti-Semitic pogromists" were involved.
Another question was whether the anti-Semitism of German fascism should compel a different approach to the Jewish question on the part of Communists. Trotsky said that both the fascist state in Germany, as well as the Arab-Jewish struggle, brought forth new and very clear proof of the principle that the Jewish question cannot be solved within the framework of capitalism:
"I do not know whether Jewry will be built up again as a nation. However, there can be no doubt that the material conditions for the existence of Jewry as an independent nation could be brought about only by the proletarian revolution. There is no such thing on our planet as the idea that one has more claim to land than another. The establishment of a territorial base for Jewry in Palestine or any other country is conceivable only with the migration of large human masses. Only a triumphant socialism can take upon itself such a task."
Trotsky added that "the blind alley in which German Jewry finds itself as well as the blind alley in which Zionism finds itself is inseparably bound up with the blind alley of world capitalism, as a whole. Only when the Jewish workers clearly see this relationship will they be forewarned against pessimism and despair".
Trotsky in Mexico
In July 1940, one month before his assassination, Trotsky noticed in the face of the growing anti-Zionist policy of the British administration in Palestine: "The attempt to solve the Jewish question through the migration of Jews to Palestine can be seen for what it is, a tragic mockery of the Jewish people. Interested in winning the sympathy of the Arabs who are more numerous than the Jews, the British government has sharply altered its policy towards the Jews, and has actually renounced its promise to help them found their ‘own home’ in a foreign land. The future development of military events may well turn Palestine into a bloody trap for several hundred thousand Jews. Never was it so clear as it is today that the salvation of the Jewish people is bound up inseparably with the overthrow of the capitalist system."15
During the heyday of the Stalinist terror in 1937 Trotsky’s hopes for a just solution of the Jewish question, at least in the USSR, vanished. In his essay "Thermidor and anti-Semitism" he pointed out that the bureaucracy, as the most regressive and reactionary social force, would profit and benefit from the darkest prejudices, anti-Semitism included. In searching for scapegoats the bureaucracy would follow the way of the Tsarist Black Hundreds. Regarding the show trials and campaigns of repression, in which the Jewish names of numerous victims had been emphasised, Trotsky wrote: "History has never yet seen an example when the reaction following the revolutionary upsurge was not accompanied by the most unbridled chauvinistic passions, anti-Semitism among them."16
This essay remained unpublished in Trotsky’s lifetime – maybe in order to prevent a triumphant Nazi propaganda offensive. Much better and much earlier than any socialist writer (with the possible exception of August Thalheimer)17 Trotsky saw very clearly the class nature and deadly destructiveness of Hitler fascism.18 After the so-called "Crystal Night" he noted in a remarkable and moving passage of a letter to American comrades on 22 December 1938: "It is possible to imagine without difficulty what awaits the Jews at the mere outbreak of the future world war. But even without war the next development of world reaction signifies with certainty the physical extermination of the Jews."19
The standard work for the Comintern readership was, since its publication in 1931, Otto Heller’s book Der Untergang des Judentums (The Fall of Jewry). Its second German edition appeared immediately before the Nazis seized power. According to Heller the rather strange title referred to the disappearance of the Jewish trader and everything connected with his existence, which set in with the French Revolution and the victory of capitalism in the West. This, in turn, destroyed the conditions for a separate Jewish lifestyle. Lacking territory, the Jews were not a nation within the countries where they lived. In the Soviet Union, they were still definitely the inheritors of a nationality. The Soviet Union neither opposed assimilation nor forced Jews to settle in a compact region.
However, in the Crimea, and especially in Birobidjan close to the Amur river in the Soviet Far Fast, it offered Jews a chance to "create here their not yet existing autonomous socialist administrative unity", Heller wrote apologetically.20 He, like so many propagandists before and after him, sketched an idealised picture of conditions in the USSR, the picture of a socialist family of nations. Once the Jewish question had supposedly been solved in the Soviet Union, "a real Jewish question" continued to exist in reality "nowadays in Eastern and Southern Europe, in the socially backward areas".21 Heller wrote these lines on the eve of Hitler’s seizure of power. He had as little idea of the horrible consequences of that act as did the party he belonged to, the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), which was unable to resist the steady march of reaction and barbarism which overtook the continent.
The Early KPD
Although this was changed in the Weimar Constitution, in the first German parliamentary democracy the administration of the state was still firmly in the hands of a conservative bureaucracy, vehemently opposed not only to Jewish emancipation but also to a strong democratic labour movement. The traditional elites had now to don democratic masks, but in all the Republic’s crises they put their money on the anti-democratic forces; ultimately the Nazi Party. These classes and a pauperised and radicalised petty bourgeoisie were linked ever more firmly by an anti-Semitism more and more loaded down with anti-Communist and pseudo-egalitarian patterns of thought. This association was ignored or played down not only by the Communists and socialists but also by most of the centre left, with the honourable exception of the Weltbühne (World Arena) circle.
This was not the case even in 1924 when, under the Communists in Bavaria and central Germany, a lumpenproletarian, anti-capitalist sort of anti-Semitism arose and found a voice in pamphlets and local newspapers such as Klassenkampf (Class Struggle) in Halle.28 Out of day-to-day political opportunism the Party felt it had to take into consideration the anti-Semitic resentment of the petty bourgeoisie and proletariat whom they wanted to win over to the KPD. In a speech made on the 25 July 1923 to Communist and "narrowly nationalist" students Ruth Fischer said:
"You are protesting against Jewish capitalism, gentlemen? Whoever protests against Jewish capitalism, gentlemen, is already a class-warrior, whether he knows it or not. You are against Jewish capitalism and want to beat down stock exchange jobbers. That’s all right. Stamp on the Jewish capitalists, string them up from the lamp-posts, trample them underfoot – Stinnes, Klockner ...."29
There were examples of anti-Semitic thought patterns, too, in the Party’s mouthpiece Rote Fahne (Red Flag), such as giving Berlin’s (Jewish) police vice-president, Bernhard Weiss, the Jewish-sounding first-name "Isodor", a practice soon to be taken up and extended by the Nazis.30
The one time before 1933 (after the happenings in Palestine in August 1929) when the KPD leadership spoke directly about Zionism, it clearly displayed its lack of familiarity with the various aspects of the Jewish question. Speaking at a Central Committee meeting held on 24-25 October 1929, Hermann Remmele admitted that: "within the Party ... little [is] known about the role played there by the Comintern, the revolutionary movement of Communism.... Our Party [Communist Party of Palestine – MK] has 160 members in Palestine; 30 are Arabs, the other 130 are Zionists. It is quite dear that this Party cannot have the sort of attitude demanded by the law of the Revolution. Obviously the oppressed people who, in the prevailing conditions, can provide the revolutionary element, can only be the Arabs."31
Almost every word is wrong here. Apart from the wholesale use of "Jews" and "Arabs", the claim that the Jewish Party members were Zionists completely twisted the facts. The KPD ought to have known this. It followed that the Rote Fahne interpreted the endeavours, which were nationalistic on both sides, as an anti-imperialistic struggle on the Arab side, without in any way criticising the policy of its feudal-clerical leadership.32 However, other publications with Communist sympathies were better able to differentiate.33
A year later, in his brochure Sowjetstern oder Hakenkreuz? (Soviet Star or Swastika?), Remmele was sharply critical of Nazi anti-Semitism. He believed, wrongly, that this anti-Semitism was a humbug, not genuine, and that Hitler and his accomplices would make a great show of anti-Semitism but in the long run would fix up agreements with Jewish and non-Jewish capitalists alike.34 A number of press reports supported this interpretation,35 which did not prevent the KPD (mainly through the German section of International Red Aid, on which it had considerable influence) from helping victims of anti-Semitism, who were mostly Jews who had emigrated to Germany from Eastern Europe.36
The small Marxist groups – the Communist Party of Germany-Opposition (KPD-Opposition), the Socialist Workers Party (Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei; SAP), the Trotskyists – made every effort to open their fellow citizens’ eyes to the deadly destructiveness of Hitler fascism. After it came to power, they did all they could to expose its abominable behaviour, particularly with regard to the Jews. However, the reformist Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands; SPD),40) and especially the Stalinist KPD, were deaf and blind to their warnings. The KPD and the SPD were primarily engaged in internecine bureaucratic warfare.
But the capitalist system did not collapse after World War II. With all its antagonisms it remained powerful and was able to recover from a series of economic and political crises. The new state of Israel became an example of expanding and growing capitalism in the Middle East. Within the context of the Arab-Jewish conflict, Israel changed from being an attempt to solve the Jewish problem to becoming a part of it. The present historians should evaluate whether, in modified forms, Trotsky’s explanations remain relevant for Jews and Arabs, for socialists and non-socialists, who oppose anti-Semitism and any form of racial and ethnic discrimination, and for the world at large at the end of the twentieth century.
1. Trotsky’s general attitude towards the Jewish question has been described by Yechiel Harari, "Le parcours de Trotsky", in Les nouveaux cahiers No.36, Spring 1974, pp.43-61; Robert S. Wistrich, Revolutionary Jews from Marx to Trotsky, London 1976; Baruch Knei-Paz, The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky, Oxford 1978. A more hostile attitude can be found in Edmund Silberner, Kommunisten zur Judenfage. Zur Geschichte von Theorie und Praxis des Kommunismus, Opladen 1983, and particularly in Joel Carmichael, Trotsky, New York 1972, and Joseph Nevada, Trotsky and the Jews, Philadelphia 1972.
2. For the fundamental differences between Lenin and the Bund regarding the problem of party organisation cf. Henry J. Tobias, "The Bund and Lenin until 1903", in Russian Review, Vol.20 No.4, 1961, pp.344-57; idem, The Jewish Bund in Russia: From Its Origins to 1905, Stanford, Cal. 1972; John Bunzi, Klassenkampf in der Diaspora. Zur Geschichte der jüdischen Arbeiterbewegung, Vienna 1975; Jonathan Frankel, Prophecy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism and the Russian Jews, New York 1982; Nathan Weinstock, Le pain de misère. Histoire du mouvement ouvrier juif en Europe, Vol.1, Paris 1984; Enzo Traverso, Les Marxistes et la question juive. Histoire d’un débat (1843-1943), Montreuil 1990; Mario Kessler, , Mainz, 1993.
3. Cf. Vladimir Medem, Shestoi sionisticheskii kongress v Bazele, London 1903.
4. L. Trotsky, "Razlozhenie sionizma i ego vozmozhnye preemnike", in Iskra, 1 Jan. 1904, cited in Knei-Paz, op. cit, p.540 et seq. The following passages are from the same source.
5. Cf. L. Trotsky, Die Russische Revolution von 1905, Dresden 1908.
6. Cf. L. Trotsky, "Die Beilis-Affäre", in Die Neue Zeit, Vol.33/1, 1913, pp.310-20.
7. Cf. L. Trotsky, "Evreiskii vopros", Kievskaya Mysl 17, 20, 21 August 1913, reprinted in L. Trotsky/Ch. Rakovsky, Ocherky politicheskii Rumynii, Moscow and Petrograd, 1923, ch.9.
8. Cf. Silberner, Kommunismus zur Judenfrage, pp.103-4.
9. Cf. L. Trotsky, Fragen des Altagslebens. Die Epoche der "Kulturarbeit" und ihr Aufgaben, Berlin 1923.
10. "Jews were in fact conspicuous among the Opposition although they were there together with the flower of the non-Jewish intelligentsia and workers. Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Sokolnikov, Radek, were all Jews." Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky 1921-1929, New York 1965, pp.258-9.
11. Cited in ibid., p.258. Italics in original. I have committed this document in the Trotsky Archives, Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge Mass. The signature of this document is T868.
12. Cf. Stephen F. Cohen, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography, New York 1973, pp.239-40, 473. Bukharin’s attirude towards anti-Semitism in Soviet Russia is not mentioned in the most recent biography. Cf. W1adislaw Hedeler and Ruth Stoijarowa, Nikolai Bucharin, Leben und Werk, Mainz 1993. Bukharin always opposed sritctly any kind of judeophobia.
13. Cf. L. Trotsky, "On the ‘Jewish Problem’", in Trotsky, On the Jewish Question, New York 1970. The following passages are from the same source.
14. L. Trotsky, "Interview with Jewish Correspondents", in Trotsky, On the Jewish Question, p.20.
15. L. Trotsky, Fragment, in Trotsky, On the Jewish Question, p.12.
16. L. Trotsky, "Thermidor and anti-Semitism", in Trotsky, On the Jewish Question, p.22.
17. On Thalheimer’s theory of fascism cf. eg. Martin Kitchen, "August Thalheimer’s Theory of Fascism", in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol.34 No.1, 1973, pp.67-8; Theodor Bergmann, Gegen den Strom. Die Geschichte der Kommunistischen Partei-Opposition, Hamburg 1987; Jurgen Kaestner, Die Politische Theorie August Thalheimers, Frankfurt am Main and New York 1982; Theodor Bergmann and Wolfgang Haible, De Geschwiste Thalheimer, Mainz 1993. [See also A. Thalheimer, "On Fascism", in the Marxist Theory section of this site.]
18. On Trotsky’s theory of fascism cf. eg. Ernest Mandel, Leon Trotsky: A Study in the Dynamic of His Thought, London 1979, and Robert S. Wistrich, Trotsky: Fate of a Revolutionary, London 1979.
19. L. Trotsky, "Appeal to American Jews Menaced by Fascism and anti-Semitism", in Trotsky, On the Jewish Question, p.29. Italics in original.
20. Otto Heller, Der Untergang des Judentums. Die Judenfrage. Ihre Kritik. Ihre Lösung durch den Sozialismus, Second edition, Berlin and Vienna, 1933, p.259.
21. Idem, in Klärung. 12 Autoren und Politiker über die Judenfrage, Berlin 1932, p.259.
22. Cf. Walter Grab, Der Deutsche Weg der Judenemanzipation 1789-1933, Munich and Zurich 1991, p.134.
23. Cf. ibid., p.140.
24. Cf. Neue Zeitung (Munich), 23 December 1922.
25. On 20 June 1923, in front of the extended ECCI, Karl Radek tried to effect a rapprochement between Communist and nationalist forces, praising as he did so Albert Leo Schlageter, who, during the French occupation of the Ruhr district, was court-martialed and shot. [See K. Radek, "Leo Schlageter: The Wanderer into the Void", in the Socialist History section of this site.]
26. Bericht über die Verhandlungen des IX. Parteitages der KPD (7. bis 10. April 1924), p.93.
27. Ibid., p.289.
28. Cf. Silberner, Kommunismus zur Judenfrage, p.270.
29. According to a report in the Social Democratic newspaper Vorwärts, 22 August 1923.
30. Cf. Die Rote Fahne, 5 July 1923.
31. Stiftung Archiv der Parteien und Massenorganisationen der DDR im Bundesarchiv, Berlin, signature 1,2/1/74.
32. Cf. Die Rote Fahne, 27 August to 7 September 1929.
33. Cf. Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung, No.39, 1929; Agrar-Probleme, Vol.2 Nos.3/4, 1929, esp. p.579.
34. Hermann Remmele, Sowjetstern oder Hakenkreuz?, Berlin l930.
35. Cf. Die Rote Fahne, 3 Sepember 1929, 17 September 1931, 9 and 29 April 1932, 17 September 1932. Cf. also "Kommunismus und Judenfrage" in Der Jud’ ist schuld ...? Diskussionsbuch über die Judenfrage Basel, etc. 1932, pp.272-286.
36. Cf. George L. Mosse, "German Socialism and the Jewish Question in the Weimar Republic", in Leo Baeck Institute Year Book XVI, London 1971, pp.123-51.
37. Cf. Silberner, Kommunismus zur Judenfrage, pp.286-92.
38. Cf. Helmut Eschwege (ed.), Kennzeichen J. Bilder, Dokumente, Berichte zur Geschichte der Verbrechen des Hitlerfaschismus an den deutschen Juden 1933-1945, Berlin 1945, p.105 (a facsimile of the KPD declaration).
39. Cf. Walter Ulbricht, "Die Judenpogrome – eine Waffe der faschistischen Kriegspolitik", in Rundschau über Politik, Wirtschaft und Arbeiterbewegung, No.57, 24 November 1938, pp.1953-4.
40. On the SPD’s attitude to Jews during the Weimar years cf. eg. Donald L. Niewyk, Socialist, Anti-Semite and Jew: German Social Democracy Confronts the Problem of Anti-Semitism, 1918-I939, Baton Rouge, La. 1971.
41. L. Trotsky, "Interview with Jewish Correspondents", in Trotsky, On the Jewish Question, p.20.
42. L. Trotsky, "Appeal to American Jews ...", in Trotsky, On the Jewish Question, p.29. For Trotsky’s attitude to Birobidjan cf. Trotsky, "Reply to a Question about Birobidjan", in Trotsky, On the Jewish Question, pp.18-19.
43. Cf. Trotsky, "Thermidor and anti-Semitism, in Trotsky, On the Jewish Question, pp.28-9.