Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


Campaign for Solidarity With Workers in the Eastern Bloc, Stalinism and Anti-Semitism, London, 1990, pp20, 60p.

This pamphlet aims to explain the current rise in anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union by showing that it is not a new phenomenon, but is deeply rooted in old Russian traditions, and has been continually manipulated by the bureaucracy in order to provide a scapegoat to divert popular discontent away from the authorities onto another target.

It argues that the official promotion of anti-Semitism started in the mid-1920s, when Stalin hinted at the Jewish backgrounds of Trotsky, Zinoviev and other oppositionists, and “as Stalin consolidated his grip on Soviet society, the level of repression of Jews and Jewish organisations and institutions rose in tandem”. Stalin's measures against Soviet Jewry, the ‘anti-cosmopolitanism’ campaign of 1948-49, the ‘Doctor’s Plot’ and his plans for their deportation to the east, are described, as are the anti-Semitic measures of the post-Stalin era, the ‘economic’ trials, in which Jewish defendants were prominently featured, and the steady stream of anti-Semitic tracts masquerading as anti-Zionism.

Under glasnost many of the official restrictions upon Jewish employment have been lifted, but unofficial anti-Semitism has flourished. Pamyat and similar groups publish anti-Semitic works, encourage anti-Jewish activities, and enjoy considerable support among the more conservative bureaucrats.

The pamphlet’s view of Soviet anti-Semitism merely as a traditional hangover from Tsarist days, which the bureaucracy mobilises whenever it needs a scapegoat, is somewhat one-sided. These factors, real as they are, cannot fully explain the development of Soviet anti-Semitism.

The instances of anti-Semitism in the Communist Party that so shocked Trotsky in 1926 can be attributed to the influx of careerist, backward people during the period after Soviet rule had been consolidated, and their encouragement by unscrupulous elements like Stalin, who were not choosy about their methods in the fight against the oppositions. Yet in the late 1920s, the Soviet authorities embarked upon an extensive campaign against anti-Semitism. The closure of synagogues and the persecution of rabbis referred to in the pamphlet were part of a wider, clumsy anti-religious campaign, rather than a specifically anti-Jewish measure. The Moscow Trials and the terror of the late 1930s did occasionally have anti-Semitic overtones, such as prosecutor Vyshinsky’s reference to Jewish defendants by their long-forgotten family names, but it seems that the Jewish victims of the terror were not picked on specifically because of their ethnic background.

Up until the late 1940s, official anti-Semitism was not an important weapon in the arsenal of the bureaucracy. Its use was episodic and unsystematic, and reflected the prejudices of individual bureaucrats.

The pamphlet does not explain precisely why the vicious campaign against ‘cosmopolitanism’ blew up in 1948. It was an integral part of the atmosphere of the time, when Stalin fought the Cold War on the home front by sealing off the Soviet bloc from the rest of the world, and promoting virulent nationalist sentiments. Soviet Jews were an immediate target. That many of them had relations abroad, especially in the USA, and, after the terrible experiences they had suffered in wartime Europe, looked positively at the new state of Israel, was enough for Stalin to view them as potentially disloyal.

Anti-Semitism in the post-Stalin era does resemble the pamphlet’s concept of the bureaucracy’s manipulation of atavistic prejudices, but that is not the case under glasnost. Many of the official restrictions upon Jews have been removed, and if the government has not condemned anti-Semitism, it has not endorsed it.

Whilst anti-Semitic organisations have no lack of support within the state machine, an official anti-Semitic campaign is unlikely in the short term. Gorbachev needs all the support he can get, and most Soviet Jews support his reform policies. As the majority of Soviet Jews work within the state sector, a purge of several million people would be highly disruptive (which is probably why Stalin’s planned deportation of the Jews was abandoned after his death). Nevertheless, the open promotion of nationalism as the Soviet bureaucracy fragments along national lines, makes a resurgence of official anti-Semitism more likely.

Stalinism and Anti-Semitism contains a lot of useful information, and at 60p one can forgive its rather tatty appearance. But its ahistorical approach means that it cannot go beyond basic truisms, and cannot fully explain the development of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union.

Paul Flewers

Updated by ETOL: 24.7.2003