“Bolshevism has made Russia safe for the Jew. If the Russian idea should take hold of the white masses of the western world, then the black toilers would automatically be free,” wrote the Jamaican-American author Claude McKay in September 1919.
By contrast, journalist and playwright Isaac Babel’s description of antisemitism in the Red Army in the years immediately following the October Revolution led him to ask the question: “Which is the Revolution and which the counter-revolution?”
Echoing Babel’s question, the writer Ilia Ehrenburg described his experience of waiting to vote in the Constituent Assembly election in November 1917:
“People were saying: ‘Whoever’s against the Yids, vote number 5 [Bolshevik]! Whoever’s for world-wide revolution, vote number 5! The patriarch rode by, sprinkling holy water. Everyone removed their hats. A group of passing soldiers began to belt out the Internationale in his direction. Where am I? Or is this truly hell?”
Who was right? McKay? Or Babel and Ehrenburg?
Brendan McGeever’s answer, in his recently published Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution, could be summed up as: McKay was closer to the truth (after making due allowance for rhetorical flourish), but Babel and Ehrenburg were certainly not wrong either.
The antisemitic pogroms which took place in the former Pale of Settlement in the years following the October Revolution were the most violent assault on Jewish life in pre-Holocaust modern history.
Around 100,000 Jews were murdered. Over half a million Jews fled their homes to escape the carnage. The bulk of those pogroms were carried out by military forces fighting to overthrow Soviet power.
The Russian autocracy had used antisemitism and tolerated, if not encouraged, Jewish pogroms. To the Bolsheviks, therefore, it seemed only "natural" that the forces of counter-revolution should again resort to antisemitism and pogroms.
But antisemitic pogroms were also carried out by forces fighting, at least ostensibly, in defence of Soviet power. Antisemitism, including its most virulent forms, was to be found amongst Bolshevik Party members, officials of local Soviet governments, and units of the Red Army.
McGeever’s book focuses on two particular instances of Red Army pogroms of Jews: in the Chernihiv region (northern Ukraine) in the spring of 1918; and in southern and central Ukraine in the spring and summer of 1919.
In the former, Red Army units attacked Jewish self-defence groups, plundered Jewish homes, destroyed a synagogue, and demanded that Jews hand over their wealth. Jews were also summarily shot in large numbers. In the town of Hlukhiv alone, over a hundred were killed.
The latter pogroms were carried out by forces under the command of Nikifor Grigor’ev. The worst of them occurred after Grigor’ev had "switched sides", abandoning the Bolsheviks and staging an anti-Soviet insurrection.
But local Soviet officials and Bolsheviks, and even Red Army units sent to fight him, joined in the pogroms. And even while Grigor’ev’s troops had been constituted as a Red Army Division, antisemitism had been manifestly rife in its ranks.
The central Bolshevik leadership and Soviet government did not remain passive in the face of these pogroms. They decided on a number of measures, including summary execution, to stem the tide of antisemitism.
But such decisions were often not followed through on the ground. Or, if implemented, then only half-heartedly and late-in-the-day. The contemporary Soviet press and later official histories also omitted mention of manifestations of Red antisemitism.
In fact, as McGeever convincingly argues in his book, the driving force in responding to the pogroms and Red Army antisemitism was not the "official" Bolshevik and Soviet structures but Jewish non-Bolshevik socialists, although many of them subsequently joined the Bolsheviks.
McGeever’s immediate focus on the two waves of antisemitic pogroms leads him into a broader discussion revolving around the different responses and strategies formulated by Bolshevik and non-Bolshevik socialists to combat antisemitism.
Did the Bolshevik view of antisemitism – essentially a "tool" of the ruling classes – disarm it politically in combatting the problem in the ranks of revolutionary forces? McGeever even goes so far as to imply that the Bolsheviks were guilty of “a race-blind class reductionism.”
And how should the struggle against antisemitism have been conceptualised and politically defined? This was a contested issue at the time.
Was antisemitism to be combatted specifically as a threat to Jews (as argued by the Jewish non-Bolshevik socialist activists), or was it to be combatted as an element of the overall threat to Soviet power (as argued by some of the "mainstream" Bolshevik leaders)?
And was antisemitism to be challenged as a specific form of national hatred, or was it to be subsumed into a generalised opposition to all forms of national hatred? Again, the same divisions emerged.
Themes used in Bolshevik propaganda and agitation, argues McGeever, were open, albeit unintentionally, to antisemitic interpretation. In particular, the campaign against economic “speculation” chimed in with the antisemitic identification of speculation with Jewishness.
What was at stake here, writes McGeever, “was the capacity for racialised conceptions of Jewishness to be reinscribed through Bolshevik economic policy.”
Even in formulating a response designed to challenge and eradicate antisemitism, McGeever continues, the Bolsheviks accommodated to antisemitic stereotyping of Jews – not enough Jews in the front line of the Red Army, but too many Jews in positions of power.
According to McGeever: “Every step taken by the Bolsheviks in the campaign against antisemitism risked perpetuating the racialising logic they sought to criticise.”
By contrast, it was in the ranks of the non-Bolshevik Jewish socialists that “a critically important degree of anti-racist agency” was to be found.
These non-Bolshevik Jewish socialists originated in the ranks of the Bund and Poalei Zion. Under the impact of the Russian Revolution they went through a process of splits and fusions as they moved towards membership of the Bolshevik Party.
Their “more urgent form of anti-racist praxis” was facilitated by their commitment to a Jewish socialist-national project:
“The closer one stood to a Jewish socialist-national project in the Russian Revolutionary context, the more likely one was to elevate and take seriously the question of antisemitism in one’s own political practice.”
But even the analysis and proposals of these Jewish socialists, which flowed out of their project of Jewish self-reconstruction, could be “vulnerable to an antisemitic interpretation”:
“Those Bolsheviks [i.e. the ex-Bundists and ex-members of Poalei Zion] most prone to perpetuating racialised conceptions of Jewishness were, in fact, the architects of the Bolshevik confrontation with antisemitism.”
Such arguments might not merit uncritical endorsement, but they certainly merit further discussion.
Drawing on Moishe Postone’s writings on the "ability" of antisemitism to “appear to be anti-hegemonic, … the expression of a movement of the little people against an intangible global form of domination,” McGeever also addresses a more fundamental issue:
“Popular anti-bourgeois sentiment, an important reservoir of revolutionary socialism, could, at the same time, be a reservoir of antisemitic mobilisation. … Antisemitism provided a nexus that enabled people to move between the seemingly antithetical categories of revolution and counter-revolution.”
Thus, the pogroms of 1918 and 1919 on which McGeever focuses “illustrate the explosive capacity for revolutionary discourse and populist anti-bourgeois sentiment to be expressed through antisemitism.”
As examples of the slogans raised in that period McGeever cites:
“We are the Bolsheviks. Beat up the Yids!”, “Smash the Yids! Long Live Soviet Power!”, “Death to the Yids and Communists! Long live Soviet power!” and “Down with the political speculators [from the land where they crucified Christ]! Long live the power of the soviets of the people of Ukraine!”
It was no wonder that Babel found it difficult to distinguish revolution from counter-revolution, nor that Ehrenburg wondered if he had arrived in hell.