Communism and the Jews

Co-blogger David Bernstein links to Polish Jewish scholar Stanislaw Krajewski’s article on the relationship between Jews and communism in Eastern Europe. As Krajewski emphasizes, this is an extremely sensitive subject. Right-wing anti-Semites have long claimed that communism was really just a “Jewish conspiracy” intended to subjugate gentiles for the Jews’ benefit.

I agree with most of Krajewski’s analysis. It cannot be denied that Jews were disproportionately represented among early Eastern European communists. Several prominent early communist leaders were Jewish, most notably Leon Trotsky. At the same time, Krajewski is also right to emphasize that the vast majority of early 20th century Jews were not communists, and that most communists were not Jewish. Overrepresentation of a group in a political movement does not prove either that the movement was “dominated” by that group or that it primarily serves that group’s interests. The idea that communist oppression was somehow Jewish in nature is belied by the record of communist regimes in countries like China, North Korea, and Cambodia, where the Jewish presence was and is miniscule.

At the same time, I am not entirely convinced by Krajewski’s claim that Jewish communists “became communists because of general social trends” rather than because of any distinctively Jewish factors. Obviously, such general trends played a role. But the overrepresentation of Jews in the movement was also caused by at least two specifically Jewish factors. First, communism disproportionately appealed to intellectuals generally. They liked its utopian nature and its seeming logical rigor. While the vast majority of Jews are not professional intellectuals, Jews are disproportionately represented in that group. Any movement that appeals to intellectuals will also tend to have a relatively high proportion of Jewish members.

Second, Jews’ status as an oppressed minority in early 20th century Eastern Europe also played a major role. The government of the Russian Empire (which ruled over most of Eastern Europe’s Jews until World War I) was highly anti-Semitic and oppressed Jews in innumerable ways. It also encouraged anti-Jewish violence, such as pogroms. Krajewski briefly mentions employment discrimination against early 20th century Jews; but that was only one small part of the prevailing anti-Semitism.

Because of this persecution, Jews were more likely to be attracted to radical anti-regime movements than most other groups. A movement that seeks to overthrow the government that oppresses you and promises ethnic and racial equality has obvious appeal to persecuted minorities. Obviously, the communists were far from the only opposition movement in early 20th century Russia that was attractive to Jews. Many of the others also had disproportionate Jewish representation. For example, the Constitutional Democratic Party, which sought to transform Russia into a Western-style liberal democracy, had a number of Jewish leaders, including the majority of Jews elected to the Russian parliament. Before 1917, there were many more Jewish Kadets than Jewish Bolsheviks in Russia.

The fact that many Jewish communists joined the movement in part because of anti-Semitism does not excuse them. There were far more constructive ways to oppose anti-Semitism than by joining a brutal totalitarian party. It does, however, help explain their actions, even if it does not justify them.

Although Jews were disproportionately represented among early communists, they were also (as Krajewski points out) disproportionately represented among the victims of communist regimes once the latter seized power. Unfortunately, Krajewski neglected to mention that in the 1970s and 80s, Jews were also disproportionately represented among the anti-communist dissidents in the USSR and Eastern Europe. Several of them played key roles in the eventual overthrow of communist rule (e.g. – Adam Michnik, one of the leaders of the Solidarity movement in Poland). Ironically, Jews were disproportionately represented among anti-communist dissidents for much the same reasons as an earlier generation had been disproportionately represented among communists: the dissident movement appealed to intellectuals, and it opposed highly anti-Semitic regimes.