Leon Trotsky

Thermidor and Anti-Semitism

(February 1937)

Written February 22, 1937.
From The New International, Vol.VII No.4, May 1941.
Transcribed for the Trotsky Internet Archive by Matt Siegfried in 1999.

At the time of the last Moscow trial I remarked in one of my statements that Stalin, in the struggle with the Opposition, exploited the anti-Semitic tendencies in the country. On this subject I received a series of letters and questions which were, by and large – there is no reason to hide the truth – very naive. “How can one accuse the Soviet Union of anti-Semitism?” “If the USSR is an anti-Semitic country, is there anything left at all?” That was the dominant note of these letters. These people raise objections and are perplexed because they are accustomed to counterpose fascist anti-Semitism with the emancipation of the Jews accomplished by the October Revolution. To these people it now appears that I am wresting from their hands a magic charm. Such a method of reasoning is typical of those who are accustomed to vulgar, nondialectical thinking. They live in a world of immutable abstractions. They recognize only that which suits them: the Germany of Hitler is the absolutist kingdom of anti-Semitism; the USSR, on the contrary, is the kingdom of national harmony. Vital contradictions, changes, transitions from one condition to another, in a word, the actual historical processes escape their lackadaisical attention.

It has not yet been forgotten, I trust, that anti-Semitism was quite widespread in Czarist Russia among the peasants, the petty bourgeoisie of the city, the intelligentsia and the more backward strata of the working class. “Mother” Russia was renowned not only for her periodic Jewish pogroms, but also for the existence of a considerable number of anti-Semitic publications which, in that day, enjoyed a wide circulation. 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 thought, 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. In 1923 I proposed to the party conference of the Bolsheviks of the Ukraine that the functionaries should be able to speak and write in the idiom of the surrounding population. How many ironical remarks were made about this proposal, in the main by the Jewish intelligentsia who spoke and read Russian and did not wish to learn the Ukrainian language! It must be admitted that in that respect the situation has changed considerably for the better. But the national composition of the bureaucracy changed little, and what is immeasurably more important, the antagonism between the population and the bureaucracy has grown monstrously during the past ten to twelve years. All serious and honest observers, especially those who have lived among the toiling masses for a long time, bear witness to the existence of anti-Semitism, not only of the old and hereditary, but also of the new, “Soviet” variety.

The Soviet bureaucrat feels himself morally in a beleaguered camp. He attempts with all his strength to break through from his isolation. The politics of Stalin, at least to the extent of 50 percent, is dictated by this urge. To wit: (1) the pseudo-socialist demagogy (“Socialism is already accomplished,” “Stalin gave, gives and will give the people a happy life,” etc.); (2) political and economic measures designed to build around the bureaucracy a broad layer of a new aristocracy (the disproportionately high wages of the Stakhanovites, military ranks, honorary orders, the new “nobility,” etc.); (3) catering to the national feelings and prejudices of the backward layers of the population.

The Ukrainian bureaucrat, if he himself is an indigenous Ukrainian, will, at the critical moment, inevitably try to emphasize that he is a brother to the muzhik and the peasant – not some sort of foreigner and under no circumstances a Jew. Of course there is not – alas! – a grain of “socialism” or even of elementary democracy in such an attitude. But that’s precisely the nub of the question. The privileged bureaucracy, fearful of its privileges, and consequently completely demoralized, represents at present the most anti-socialist and most anti.democratic stratum of Soviet society. In the struggle for its self-preservation it exploits the most ingrained prejudices and the most benighted instincts. If in Moscow, Stalin stages trials which accuse the Trotskyists of plotting to poison workers, then it is not difficult to imagine to what foul depths the bureaucracy can resort in some Ukrainian or central Asiatic hovel!

He who attentively observes Soviet life, even if only through official publications, will from time to time see bared in various parts of the country hideous bureaucratic abscesses: bribery, corruption, embezzlement, murder of persons whose existence is embarrassing to the bureaucracy, violation of women and the like. Were we to slash vertically through, we should see that every such abscess resulted from the bureaucratic stratum. Sometimes Moscow is constrained to resort to demonstration trials. In all such trials the Jews inevitably comprise a significant percentage, in part because, as we already stated, they make up a great part of the bureaucracy and are branded with its odium, partly because, impelled by the instinct for self-preservation, the leading cadre of the bureaucracy at the center and in the provinces strives to divert the indignation of the working masses from itself to the Jews. This fact was known to every critical observer in the USSR as far back as ten years ago, when Stalin regime had hardly as yet revealed its basic features.

The struggle against the Opposition was for the ruling clique a question of life and death. The program, principles, ties with the masses, everything was rooted out and cast aside because of the anxiety of the new ruling clique for its self-preservation. These people stop at nothing on order to guard their privileges and power. Recently an announcement was released to the whole world, to the effect that my youngest son, Sergei Sedov, was under indictment for plotting mass poisoning of the workers. Every normal person will conclude: people capable of preferring such a charge have reached the last degree of moral degradation. Is it possible in that case to doubt even for a moment that these same accusers are capable of fostering the anti-Semitic prejudices of the masses? Precisely in the case of my son, both these depravities are united. It is worthwhile to consider this case. From the day of their birth, my sons bore the name of their mother (Sedov). They never used any other name – neither at elementary school, nor at the university, nor in their later life. As for me, during the past thirty-four years I have borne the name of Trotsky. During the Soviet period no one ever called me by the name of my father (Bronstein), just as no one ever called Stalin Dzhugashvili. In order not to oblige my sons to change their name, I, for “citizenship” requirements, took on the name of my wife (which, according to Soviet law, is fully permissible). However, after my son, Sergei Sedov, was charged with the utterly incredible accusation of plotting to poison workers, the GPU announced in the Soviet and foreign press the “real” (!) name of my son is not Sedov but Bronstein. If these falsifiers wished to emphasize the connection of the accused with me, they would have called him Trotsky since politically the name Bronstein means nothing at all to anyone. But they were out for another game; that is, they wished to emphasize my Jewish origin and the semi-Jewish origin of my son. I paused at this episode because it has a vital and yet not at all exceptional character. The whole struggle against the Opposition is full of such episodes.

Between 1923 and 1926, when Stalin, with Zinoviev and Kamenev, was still a member of the “Troika,” the play on the strings of anti-Semitism bore a very cautious and masked character. Especially schooled orators (Stalin already then led an underhanded struggle against his associates) said that the followers of Trotsky are petty bourgeois from “small towns” without defining their race. Actually that was untrue. The percentage of Jewish intellectuals in the Opposition was in no case any greater than that in the party and in the bureaucracy. It is sufficient to name the leaders of the Opposition for the years 1923-25. I.N. Smirnov, Serebryakov, Rakovsky, Piatakov, Preobrazhensky, Krestinsky, Muralov, Beloborodov, Mrachkovsky, V. Yakovlev, Sapronov, V.M. Smirnov, Ishtchenko – fully indigenous Russians. Radek at the time was only half-sympathetic. But, as in the trials of the grafters and other scoundrels, so at the time of the expulsions of the Opposition from the party, the bureaucracy purposely emphasized the names of Jewish members of casual and secondary importance. This was quite openly discussed in the party, and, back in 1925, the Opposition saw in this situation the unmistakable symptom of the decay of the ruling clique.

After Zinoviev and Kamanev joined the Opposition the situation changed radically for the worse. At this point there opened wide a perfect chance to say to the workers that at the head of the Opposition stand three “dissatisfied Jewish intellectuals.” Under the direction of Stalin, Uglanov in Moscow and Kirov in Leningrad carried through this line systematically and almost fully in the open. In order the more sharply to demonstrate to the workers the differences between the “old” course and the “new,” the Jews, even when unreservedly devoted to the general line, were removed from responsible party and Soviet posts. Not only in the country but even in the Moscow factories the baiting of the Opposition back in 1926 often assumed a thoroughly obvious anti-Semitic character. Many agitators spoke brazenly: “The Jews are rioting.” I received hundreds of letters deploring the anti-Semitic methods in the struggle with the Opposition. At one of the sessions of the Politburo I wrote Bukharin a note: “You cannot help knowing that even in Moscow in the struggle with the Opposition, methods of Black Hundred demagogues (anti-Semitism, etc.) are utilized.” Bukharin answered me evasively on that same piece of paper: “Individual instances, of course, are possible.” I again wrote: “I have in mind not individual instances but a systematic agitation among the party secretaries at large Moscow enterprises. Will you agree to come with me to investigate an example of this at the factory ’Skorokhod’ (I know a number of other such examples).” Bukharin answered, “All right, we can go.” In vain I tried to make him carry out the promise. Stalin most categorically forbade him to do so. In the months of preparations for the expulsions of the Opposition from the party, the arrests, the exiles (in the second half of 1927), the anti-Semitic agitation assumed a thoroughly unbridled character. The slogan, “Beat the Opposition,” often took on the complexion of the old slogan “Beat the Jews and save Russia.” The matter went so far that Stalin was constrained to come out with a printed statement which declared: “We fight against Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev not because they are Jews but because they are Oppositionists,” etc. To every politically thinking person it was completely clear that this consciously equivocal declaration, directed against “excesses” of anti-Semitism, did at the same time with complete premeditation nourish it. “Do not forget that the leaders of the Opposition are – Jews.” That was the meaning of the statement of Stalin, published in all Soviet journals.

When the Opposition, to meet the repressions, proceeded with a more decisive and open struggle, Stalin, in the form of a very significant “jest”, told Piatakov and Preobrazhensky: “You at the least are fighting against the C.E., openly brandishing your axes. That proves your ’orthodox’ action. Trotsky works slyly and not with a hatchet.” Preobrazhensky and Piatakov related this conversation to me with strong revulsion. Dozens of times Stalin attempted to counterpose the “orthodox” core of the Opposition to me.

The well known German radical journalist, the former editor of Aktion, Franz Pfemfert, at present in exile, wrote me in August 1936:

“Perhaps you remember that several years ago in Aktion I declared that many actions of Stalin can be explained by his anti-Semitic tendencies. The fact that in this monstrous trial he, through Tass, managed to ‘correct’ the names of Zinoviev and Kamenev represents, by itself, a gesture in typical Streicher style. In this manner Stalin gave the ‘Go’ sign to all anti-Semitic, unscrupulous elements.”

In fact the names, Zinoviev and Kamenev, it would seem, are more famous than the names of Radomislyski and Rozenfeld. What other motives could Stalin have had to make known the “real” names of his victims, except to play with anti-Semitic moods? Such an act, and without the slightest legal justification, was, as we have seen, likewise committed over the name of my son. But, undoubtedly, the most astonishing thing is the fact that all four “terrorists” allegedly sent by me from abroad turned out to be Jews and – at the same time – agents of the anti-Semitic Gestapo! Inasmuch as I have ever actually seen any of these unfortunates, it is clear that the GPU deliberately selected them because of their racial origin. And the GPU does not function by virtue of its own inspiration!

Again, if such methods are practiced at the very top where the personal responsibility of Stalin is absolutely unquestionable, then it is not hard to imagine what transpires at the factories, and especially at the kolkhozes. And how can it be otherwise? The physical extermination of the older generation of the Bolsheviks is, for every person who can think, an incontrovertible expression of the Thermidorian reaction, and in its most advanced stage at that. 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.

In the opinion of some “Friends of the USSR,” my reference to the exploitation of anti-Semitic tendencies by a considerable part of the present bureaucracy represents a malicious invention for the purpose of a struggle against Stalin. It is difficult to argue with professional “friends” of the bureaucracy. These people deny the existence of a Thermidorian reaction. They accept even the Moscow trials at face value. There are not “friends” who visit the USSR with special intention of seeing spots on the sun. Not a few of these receive special pay for their readiness to see only what is pointed out to them by the finger of the bureaucracy. But woe to those workers, revolutionists, socialists, democrats who, in the words of Pushkin, prefer “a delusion which exalts us” to the bitter truth. One must face life as it is. It is necessary to find in reality itself the force to overcome its reactionary and barbaric features. That is what Marxism teaches us.

Some would-be “pundits” have even accused me of “suddenly” raising the “Jewish question” and of intending to create some kind of ghetto for the Jews. I can only shrug my shoulders in pity. I have lived my whole life outside Jewish circles. I have always worked in the Russian workers’ movement. My native tongue is Russian. Unfortunately, I have not even learned to read Jewish. The Jewish question has never occupied the center of my attention. But that does not mean that I have the right to be blind to the Jewish problem which exists and demands solution. “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?

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Last updated on: 20.4.2007