Fatal Attraction

Reflections on Jews and Communism

In her memoir, Manhattan, When I was Young, Mary Cantwell recalls how, as an Irish-American woman with a Jewish boyfriend (soon to become her husband) during the summer Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were electrocuted, she found herself worrying: “The weekend we spent at his [uncle and aunt’s] cabin in the Catskills smearing cream cheese on toast was torture, because they reminded me of the Rosenbergs…. I thought we would all be arrested, that I, too, would die in the chair.”  Marching as a couple in a 1936 Communist-sponsored May Day parade on Lower Broadway, Mary McCarthy recalls how parade marshals tended to be blond and blue-eyed, with party cadres “on the whole Jewish.”  McCarthy and her gentile partner were placed at the parade’s outer edge thus “making [Jews] less visible by staying in the center of the ranks like the filling of a sandwich.”

Communism retained a vague, somewhat sinister potency in the early ‘60s as I came of age in a densely Jewish wedge of Los Angeles a mile or two south of the Hollywood Hills.  There was the Emma Lazarus club, a greyish storefront on a stretch of Pico more Black than Jewish a mile or so from the Jewish Pico-Robertson neighborhood. I had heard that this was a group favoured by Jewish fellow travellers and found myself staring intently at the building as we drove home from my yeshiva high school.  My early adolescent mind was certain of the orgiastic abandon behind its deceptively nondescript exterior. I also noted how certain relatives and family acquaintances, their names rarely mentioned again except in whispers or exaggerated grimaces, disappeared – not into the clutches of authorities – thrust out of the clubby embrace of our cousin’s club, or landsmanschaft gatherings. What I came to understand was that those exiled still had CP membership – or at least sympathies.

In my early twenties, as I embraced anti-war activities, wearing my hair long and replacing the rock-heavy orthopedic shoes I had always worn with sandals –  roughly at the same time I started studying Russian – my mother complained to anyone who would listen that her son was now a communist. Just a few months ago a lawyer, a former schoolmate, all-but-asked whether I was still a party member.

In our family circle, which hailed from a small town in the Lithuanian marshes just beyond Pinsk – among the more politically inflected regions of the former Pale of Settlement – Communism was a source of mostly sequestered, if intermittently acute, unease. My parents were both born in Chicago, long a CP hub, settling eventually in Los Angeles. There the Communist Party, numbering some 3,000 in the 1930s, included the country’s largest proportion of Jews: 90 percent of its membership was Jewish, not counting more numerous non-party supporters. The party’s influence was felt most strongly in the Jewish enclaves of Boyle Heights and Hollywood. Nearly all of this had disappeared by the time I reached my early adolescence, though with a lingering presence – at least in the milieu in which I grew up – much like formerly potent, only recently eradicated medical perils such as tuberculosis or polio.

Once you start to notice it, though, the disinclination to look squarely at Communism’s allure as a feature of American Jewish life is obvious. Barely a glimmer in Judd Teller’s 1966 portrait of Jewish cultural and intellectual life Strangers and Natives: The Evolution of the American Jew from 1921 to the Present; one citation in Charles Silberman’s bestselling 1985 portrait of contemporary Jewish life A Certain People; not even an index entry in Howard M. Sacher’s mammoth A History of the Jews in America published in 1992. True, Jewish Communist membership numbers had been declining since the late 1920s in the wake of the party’s feeble response to the 1929 Hebron riots, the Stalin-Hitler pact, mounting anti-Communist intimidation and news of the eradication of Russia’s Yiddish intelligentsia. And although the Jewish allegiances of Jews devoted to Communism were, on the whole, tenuous, the American Communist Party’s resurgence amid the Soviet travails of the Second World War was widely felt, and the numbers of fellow travellers, while impossible to calculate with any precision, far exceeded party membership. Communism’s rapid erasure from Jewish historical memory was – as the saying goes – anything but accidental.

Yuri Slezkine’s blitzkrieg on Jewish historiography, The Jewish Century, makes a similar point with regard to the role of Jews in the making of the Soviet Union. This is further elaborated in his recent book, The Government House. In a fascinating tome, resembling a metropolitan telephone book (1123 pages) but reading more like a lengthy Jewish wedding list, Slezkine reminds us of the extent of the Jewish presence in at least the first years of Bolshevik rule:  the head of state was then Sverdlov, the first chief negotiator at the peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk Joffe (born a Karaite). Then there was, of course, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Trotsky alongside the now lesser known but once-famed jurist Stolts, the head of the Communist international Piatnitsky, the famed journalist Koltsov, famed foreign trade expert Karsin, famed economist Larin, Chekist Uritsky as well as Radek and Bela Kun. One of the commanders of Ukrainian anarchist Nestor Makhno’s Black Army was a Jew; so was the ubiquitous translator, later financier, Alex Bomberg, who helped Louise Bryant (John Reed’s wife) and many other reporters negotiate the turbulence of 1917. Odessa Jew Steklov would be the longtime editor of Izvestiia, the Bundist Liber was among the pre-October Soviet’s most visible figures, the Menshevik Martov was widely regarded, even during his decline as an influential leader in 1917, as Marxism’s most subtle contemporary thinker. The historian Zvi Gitelman has likened the shock of so many Jews in the Bolshevik government between 1917 and 1921 to what it might have felt for the whites of Mississippi in 1950 to have an African-American as governor or chief of the state police.

Much the same scenario was replicated at or near the top of the US Communist food-chain: longtime leader Joseph Pepper, mass agitator Max Bedacht, literary enforcers Michael Gold and Alexander Trachtenberg, political tacticians Jay Lovestone, Max Shachtman and Benjamin Gitlow, millionaire founder of International Publishers A.A. Heller, and Bertha and Samuel Rubin, who started the party’s official publishing house the Workers Library.  Roughly half of the cultural apparatus of the American CP was in the hands of Jews in the 1930s and ‘40s.  The Yiddish Communist newspaper Freiheit’s circulation in 1925 was 22,000 – at a time when the subscription base of Daily Worker was only 17,000.  Breakaway groupings headed by Shachtman and Lovestone were almost entirely Jewish. This wasn’t, to be sure, an international phenomenon: far less true for, say, England or France, but certainly the case in interwar and post-war Poland, Hungary and Romania.

The absolute number of Jewish party members was nearly always tiny, with the outsized presence of Jews in Soviet Russia’s Communist Party a temporary phenomenon already diminishing by the mid- or late-1920s.  But whatever communism’s allure for Jews, the topic remains to this day achingly difficult to air–precisely because of its role in the toxic arsenal used by antisemites to defame and attack. That a penchant for both communism and, for that matter, capitalism is somehow intrinsic to Jews – views patently contradictory, it would seem, but sharing, as some continue to insist, reliance on a conspiratorial intelligence and on forces hidden from view – remains a stubborn fixture of contemporary life.  Russian TV’s new multi-part series on Trotsky as the true fountainhead of the Russian revolution provides fresh evidence that such beliefs retain their potency.

How, then, to speak of Jews and Communism without either the burden of apologetics or denial? Explanations abound: few are disposable, but none sufficiently persuasive. Communism as secularized Jewish messianism (perhaps the least compelling of all, if also the one with the most robust shelf-life)? Communism as a response to tsarist antisemitism, or the weakness of Russian liberalism, or the pogromist hysteria of 1918-21?  Communism as the most coherent – if also the most extreme – manifestation of universalism?  Or, on the other hand, an opportunistic strategy employed during the terrible hunger, the horrors, the deadly cold of Bolshevism’s early years.  In the United States, Jewish communist allegiance could credibly be seen as a stepchild of the strike movement, a reaction to interwar antisemitism, a consequence of the party’s commitment to civil rights, or a byproduct of the worldwide depression.  Moreover, nostalgia for Russia would by the early 1930s be augmented by admiration for the Soviet Union as an industrial juggernaut. “Like the dye that suffuses to cloth,” as Daniel Bell has put it, Communism “gave [the epoch] its coloration.”

Certainly, the promise of Soviet utopia had the capacity to overwhelm otherwise discerning minds outside the party – Jews as well as non-Jews. Traveling to Russia in 1936 Edmund Wilson, the most astute critic of his age, wrote in his diary of “A new smell on the boat, new soap, towels of a new size and shape, new people, a new language.  I walked around in a kind of elation.” There had been no prior example, as François Furet has observed, of a backward place catapulted into a guiding light.  (Though Russia would be followed by Israel in the early ‘50s, soon Cuba, then Vietnam, and eventually Palestine.)  Quickly Russia would become little less than a pillar of the European conscience, with its very backwardness  taken for evidence of an unspoiled goodness or, as cultural historian Christopher Lasch once put it, “a museum of preindustrial antiquities, in which were preserved all the things that liberalism had wiped out.”

No one has captured this yearning with greater precision than the American Jewish critic Lionel Trilling in his account of his first, unsettling encounter as a young Communist with the writing of Isaac Babel:

“In those days one still spoke of the ‘Russian experiment’ and one might still believe that the light of dawn glowed on the test tubes and crucibles of human destiny…. I do not remember what my own particular expectations were, except that they involved a desire for an art that would have as little ambiguity as a proposition in logic….I was drawn to this notion … because I was afraid of the literature of modern Europe, because I was scared of its terrible intensities, ironies, and ambiguities….At any rate, here was Babel’s book and I found it disturbing. It was obviously the most remarkable work of fiction that had yet come out of revolutionary Russia, the only work, indeed, that I knew of as having upon it the mark of exceptional talent, even of genius. Yet for me it was all too heavily charged with the intensity, the irony, and ambiguousness from which I wished to escape.”

The most delightful Russians Edmund Wilson encountered on the boat were engineers: “I felt closer to [them]…than the English people with whom I ate.”  The most celebrated Soviet fiction of the 1930s was devoted to technological successes. The Soviet metro with its glorious stations and rapid trains was declaimed as among the world’s great wonders. A mesmerised Stalin was said to have ridden it twice on his first visit, unable to believe the miracles he had just witnessed.

Does any of this go any distance toward explaining Communism’s particular attraction to Jews?  In Bertrand Russell’s The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism – published in 1920 soon after his first Russia trip – he suggested that a key to understanding Bolshevism’s allure was its collapse of all distinction between science and morality. Communism provided, says Russell, something akin to the divine authority of the past for its fact-based, irrevocable certainty.  And, still more significant, its teachings were bound up with specific, detailed guidance regarding action. The authority of its leaders – above all, Russian leaders – was viewed as the byproduct of their capacity to best understand the workings of the universe, and with an authority comparable, say, to scientific specialists on climate change or evolution.

“Someone who came from the Soviet Union,” writes the doyen of California Communism, Dorothy Healey (born Rosenblum), “was god incarnate, full of all the wisdom in the world.” London’s late Labour historian Raphael Samuel, nephew of the Jewish scholar Chimen Abramsky and himself a Communist for decades, says much the same in his depiction of life in the party: “We took our doctrine from … great teachers,” he writes, “treating them as science….The ambitions of the Communist Party…were unmistakably theocratic…we conceived of ourselves to be a communion of the elect, covenanted to a sacred cause.”  It is just this interplay in Bolshevism between faith and politics that Slezkine, too, builds into the core of The Government House.

Belief solidified by copious reading. This is how Menshevik leader Fyodor Dan describes his own political trajectory, a tale replicated in memoirs time and again. True, rarely did this routine of self-education involve immersion in the densest Marxist classics.  Instead it was Lenin’s State and Revolution, Kautsky’s The Class Struggle, or Upton Sinclair’s now-forgotten but once-canonic 1917 novel King Coal that exerted on hungry minds an impact in ways comparable to a later generation’s first encounter with Noam Chomsky or Edward Said.  The Communist romance would often start as a flirtation of the mind. Which might help explain the anguish marking so many post-Communist confessionals, haunted by the awareness that theirs was a journey inspired by intellectual engagement, but culminating in the sacrifice of intellectual probity and independence.

No more powerful example existed in 1917 of Communism as a scientific intellectual feast than Trotsky.  Darkly Semitic, a world-class intellectual, vain, handsome, stunningly brilliant as an orator – and, as he would soon show, a canny military strategist. M.J. Olgin, still a Bolshevik foe, described him as “always on the aggressive.  He is full of passion – that white-heated vibrating mental passion that characterizes the intellectual Jew.”

That fierce, restless enthusiasm, wedded to the life of the mind, would be seen as seen as the quintessence of Jewish radicalism. Louise Bryant, whose book Six Months in Russia appeared before her husband John Reed’s classic Ten Days that Shook the World, tells how she was walking with a young Lower East Side Jew in Greenwich Village the day the February revolution was announced. Her companion grabbed a newspaper report of the event and immediately dashed, as Bryant put it, “madly through the streets.”  Three days later, “I met him – he was still embracing everybody, weeping, and telling them the good news.”  Ernest Poole, patrician-born, Princeton-educated, non-Jewish, summed up his sense of the nexus of unrestrained Jewish fervour and intellect:

In those days when immigration poured thousands into the Lower East Side, most of them young, with political oppression behind them and new lives suddenly opening here, the whole vast region had become a melting pot for new ideas debated at a feverish heat in numberless cafes, large and small.  Though in many the only drink was tea or coffee and the men and boys and girls who gathered there worked hard by day, most of them beginning at dawn, still those night discussions would run on till three or four o’clock….

It was, arguably, the prospect of transmuting just such endless, intoxicating talk – of breaking loose from the hold of those books that brought you into the bosom of revolution – that would come to define for so many the essence of Bolshevism. Isaac Babel’s Gedali might well continue to declaim in luscious, evocative sentences about a revolution of joy but this remained, alas, “an unattainable International.” Instead, Babel describes in his brilliant evocation of the lyrical power of revolutionary action “My First Goose” how the bespectacled narrator puts his newspaper aside, announcing to the landlady of the house where he and his Red Cossack troops are billeted that he is dead-tired of mere words and desperately hungry for action:

…I saw a saber lying nearby.  A haughty goose was waddling through the yard, placidly grooming its feathers.  I caught the goose and forced it to the ground, its head cracking beneath my foot, cracking and bleeding.  Its white neck lay stretched out in the dung, and the wings folded down over the slaughtered bird.

“Goddamit,” I said, poking at the goose with the saber. “Roast it for me…”

The special allure of action for someone, as Babel described himself, with spectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart. Eric Hobsbawm, arguably the finest historian of his generation (who never left the Communist party), muses in his autobiography that had he abandoned Communism he knew that for the remainder of his life “nothing much” would happen beyond, as he puts it, what might go on in his head.  He recalls how Isaac Deutscher, whose three-volume biography of Trotsky is justly celebrated as one of the monuments of contemporary political biography, told him that he had never ceased to regret leaving the party because in its absence he was never able to do anything nearly as useful.

Bolshevism’s promise of a morality of action helped draw Jews into its bosom. The constraints, the equivocations, of a life spent deep inside library shelves was stripped of its pertinence in the face of a future now endowed with scientific certainty – a life freed from the bondage of reading as a moral imperative. “I knew Martov would be destroyed by the revolution,” Trotsky reportedly stated to memoirist Nikolai Sukhanov.  “Martov,” wrote Sukhanov, was “an incomparable political thinker and remarkable analyst” but these same qualities underlined his “weakness in action.” Sukhanov disparages this as a fatal disability amid the turbulence of 1917.   None of these qualities, of course, can be seen as quintessentially Jewish: Sukhanov, a non-Jew and anti-Bolshevik Marxist, heaps admiration in his memoirs on men of action – he himself so oblivious to the activities around him that he obeyed his Bolshevik wife, who instructed him to sleep elsewhere on the night the Bolshevik revolution was plotted by Lenin and others in his own apartment!

While both Martov and Trotsky were Jews, the prime champion of single-minded political activism in 1917 was Lenin – a non-Jew. Moreover the bulk of Jewish party members in the early Soviet Union came not from the intelligentsia but from the ranks of the proste yidn (“common Jews”) won over, arguably, because of Communism’s anti-pogromist agitation, the loss of traditional Jewish occupations like peddling or artisan work, and the overall attractiveness of Bolshevism’s stand against antisemitism. In the United States, the majority of party members and fellow travelers came from the lower middle and middle class – for such Jews Communism’s attraction probably had little to do with a desire to relinquish the chains of bookish equivocation.

Still, the special hunger for action felt by bookish souls, the prospect of transmuting oneself into a tiger, a lion in Babel’s words who “picks fights in town squares and stutters only among papers” – while not intrinsically Jewish traits – can be seen as recognizably Jewish at certain historical junctures. Bolshevism promised, as Babel knew well, the prospect of just such a jaggedly abrupt transcendence, an embrace, as he puts it at the very end of his wartime masterpiece, of “the gnarled steel of Lenin’s skull and the listless silk of Maimonides portrait…. Pages of The Song of Songs and revolver cartridges….”

What of the argument that the mere acknowledgment of a Jewish Communist romance serves to reinforce a dangerous, even lethal, distortion?  Some still, and with what appears to be growing influence, insist that Jews by their very nature are poised to wreak havoc on a non-Jewish world. Is it not a mistake to provide any substance to such charges?

It is historians of capitalism, interestingly enough, who recently offered as good a response as exists.  Jerry Muller, Sarah Abrevaya Stein, Adam Sutcliffe and others have all acknowledged that “the intellectual prowess, single-minded focus and family-oriented sobriety of Jews” at certain junctures of history played a role in Jewish capitalist prominence.  Jewish success with money, much like the Jewish attraction to communism, deserves, as Sutcliffe has recently argued, “hard-headed attention” – if only because “lingering evasions and embarrassments inevitably foster and readily mutate into awkward taboos, hostile stereotypes, or conspiracy theories.”

Besides, antisemitism does not require actual evidence (e.g. 9/11 conspiracy theories), the presence of Jews (e.g. present-day Poland) or, for that matter, sustenance from Jewish historical scholarship. It is not merely the product of the unintelligent, or uninformed:  read Solzhenitsyn.  Antisemitism remains a cancer, arguably much like the disease itself best challenged by knowledge, not ignorance or white-washing.

“In a revolution, a mother is a mere episode,” says the dying Bolshevik Ilya to Babel’s narrator.  The message, as I suspect Babel well understood, is a truly terrible one.  But there were Jews who felt exactly this way, and who deserve to be taken seriously, to be held accountable for the full range of their impulses; impulses that made them astringent and ideologically smitten, contemptuous and fearful of sentiment, much like Babel’s noble, pathetic hero.

This essay features in the Summer ’18 issue of Jewish Quarterly.

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