Revolutionary Reflections | Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution

Neil Rogall reviews the book Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution by Brendan McGeever, which casts new light on the role of antisemitism in the 1917 Russian Revolution and also illuminates the struggle against the rise of antisemitism today.

Book cover of Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution by Brendan McGeever
Cover of ‘Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution’ by Brendan McGeever. Cover image: Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky’s ‘The Red Commander’, 1921.

I became a Marxist as a part of the ’68 generation. The key issue for me aged 17 was the nature of the Soviet Union. I had seen the tanks go into Prague to crush the Czech Spring and the French Communist Party act to neutralise and betray the possibilities of the French May. What had gone wrong with the dreams and hopes of 1917 these states and parties were meant to embody? The fate of the Russian Revolution was crucial to all in our revolutionary generation, irrespective of which faction we belonged to. I probably read more books on the Russian Revolution and its aftermath than anything else for the next 20 years. 

The only convincing explanation as far as I was concerned was that proposed by the International Socialists and its founder, Tony Cliff: that there had been an internal counter-revolution in the late 1920s in which the Stalinist bureaucracy reversed every gain of October, and used its control of the state to industrialise the USSR at breakneck speed and at the expense of the living standards and bodies of the working class and peasantry. The result was not socialism or communism but state capitalism. Such an understanding drew a clear river of blood between the glory of 1917 and the horrors of Stalinism.

I was a rebel from a Jewish and Zionist family, one of those non-Jewish Jews that Isaac Deutscher had written so cogently about in his essay ‘The non-Jewish Jew’. I identified strongly with those Jewish revolutionaries from 1917 and beyond: Trotsky, Radek, Zinoviev, Uritsky, Sverdlov and Kamenev in Russia; Luxemburg, Levi, and Jogiches in Germany.

I studied the history of Jews in the Tsarist empire. Four million lived in territories acquired by the Tsarist Empire in the 18th and 19th century. Most were in an area termed the ‘Pale of Settlement’ – the only part of the Tsarist Empire that Jews were allowed to live without special permits. This stretched from Lithuania on the Baltic to the Black Sea in the south, from Poland in the west to ‘White Russia’ and Ukraine in the east. All Jewish people faced government restrictions on travel, employment, education and worship. Conscription into the military hit Jews much more heavily than non-Jews. The majority Russian orthodox population were required to provide seven conscripts aged 18-35 per thousand for the Tsarist army, whereas for Jews it was ten per thousand conscripts aged 12-18, and they had to serve 25 years. The Jews, according to an official Tsarist report of 1888, were suffering ‘repression and disenfranchisement, discrimination and persecution’.

But persecution was never simply the act of the state. It drew on and was reinforced by popular prejudice in the Pale. The Jews were largely an urban population, excluded from the new developing industries and agriculture. They were tradespeople, merchants, middlemen, peddlers, small-scale money lenders and tavern keepers. For centuries the Jews had been trapped by Tsarism into being agents of the nobility. They were the crucial link as traders and craftspeople between the villages and the small towns of aristocratic estates. The one area of manufacture that they did play a major role in was textiles, one that needed less capital and employed intensive, sweated labour, and where the owners were often Jewish themselves. This of course was in contrast to the Christian population – Roman or Orthodox – who were rural or small townspeople and agriculturalists, who often depended on Jewish middlemen and traders. To the peasantry, the Jews were ‘speculators’ and ‘exploiters’ as well as being the ‘killers of Christ’ as their priests preached. Such hostility could easily turn into pogroms, especially when fanned by the Tsarist state, and the slogan ‘Bash the Jews’ was an ever present one. Waves of pogroms occurred in the 1880s following the assassination of Tsar Alexander, after the 1905 revolution, and on a gigantic scale during the Russian Civil War following the October Revolution of 1917.

Revolution and reaction

The October Revolution’s promise was of a world free from poverty and exploitation, a world without oppression. The Bolshevik’s message connected with millions across the globe who were worn down by a war that had brought nothing but disease, hunger and death for working people. That message resonated across the Global South as well as the industrial world.

That promise had to be drowned in blood. Millions died in combat of starvation and disease as counter-revolutionary forces in alliance with invading foreign armies attempted to destroy the new state. The Jewish population suffered enormously. Between 100,000 and 200,000 Jews were murdered in the civil war years. The hopes of 1917 were accompanied by widespread and terrifying racialised killing. The majority died in pogroms instigated by Denikin’s white army or Petliura’s Ukrainian separatists. To these counter-revolutionary forces, the revolution was the work of ‘Judeo-Bolsheviks’, a phrase that Hitler used with even deadlier consequences in the subsequent Judeocide.

But around eight percent of the Jewish dead, a minority but still a substantial number, died in pogroms in areas controlled by the revolution, often with the participation of Red Army soldiers, as Brendan McGeever’s Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution tragically records. The first wave of such pogroms were in the spring of 1918. In one of the most brutal examples, in Novhorod-Siverskyi, a small town in the north east of Ukraine, Red Guards and ‘Bolsheviks’ slaughtered over 88 Jews. They were murdered irrespective of their class background. In early March, after pro-Bolshevik forces took Hlukhiv, a city of 15,000 including 4,000 Jews, a pogrom took place under the slogan ‘eliminate the bourgeoisie and the Yids’. More than 100 Jews were murdered. When one victim asked why they were being killed, the Red Partisan soldier replied ‘we’ve been given orders [from above] to kill all the Jews.’

A second, wider wave of anti-Jewish violence took place in the Ukraine in 1919. The vast majority of pogroms were at the hands of the reactionary whites. In Proskuriv, for example, in February, 1650 Jews were murdered by the nationalist Ukrainian army in four hours. But, again, a minority were killed at the hands of the revolutionary forces. Just to give one instance out of many: on 15 May, workers at the Elvorti factory in Elisavetgrad, a factory with a considerable Bolshevik presence, joined forces with Red sailors from Odessa and the troops commanded by Nikifor Grigor’ev, a former tsarist officer. In early January Grigor’ev had backed the anti-Bolshevik Ukrainian nationalist forces, then switched to supporting the revolution, which allowed the Red Army to secure the key cities of the Ukrainian south. Grigor’ev then switched sides again in early May. In fact, the Red Army of the Ukraine was riddled with antisemitism as internal Bolshevik reports made clear.

This is the paradox, the darkness, at the heart of Brendan McGeever’s book, which focuses on the Ukraine in particular.

Nationalism, ethnicity and class

Antisemitism was rooted in Ukrainian social formation. The Ukraine was a society deeply divided by class and ethnicity. ‘In urban regions, the working class was overwhelmingly drawn from Ukraine’s minority ethnic populations, above all Russians and Jews,’ McGeever explains. But in rural regions the population was overwhelmingly Ukrainian. A Soviet census in 1926 showed that Ukrainians were 80 percent of the population but only 4 percent of the working class. On the other hand, up to 97 percent of the rural population were Ukrainian. This had tremendous consequences for class relations, as McGeever points out: ‘nationalism, ethnicity and class’ were ‘interlocking experiences’. Relations between urban traders and peasants in the Ukraine were central to class and identity formation. This was exacerbated during the civil war when there was a lack of manufactured goods to exchange for the peasants’ produce. To Ukrainian peasants the cities were full of ruthless profiteers and speculators who oppressed the Ukrainian toilers. As McGeever writes, ‘the national question was keenly felt at the point of production, and in particular in the realm of distribution and exchange’. 

This had serious consequences during the revolution and civil war. ‘In the Ukrainian popular imaginary… Communists were urban, non-Ukrainians who stood aloof from peasant life; they were ‘Russian oppressors’ and, above all, ‘speculating Jews’.’ As the revolution radicalised the peasantry, slogans such as ‘We are for Bolshevik power without communists!’ and ‘Down with the Communists, long live Soviet Power’ played an important mobilising role.

As the white armies threatened Soviet power, the Red partisans and then later the Red Army recruited necessarily from the Ukrainian peasantry. Bolshevik class analysis – ‘the bourgeoisie’, ‘toilers’, ‘exploiter and exploited’ were interpreted in the Ukraine through the popular imaginary where Ukrainian peasants were ‘true’ and ‘honest’ ‘toilers’ who engaged in productive labour, whilst ‘Jews’ were communists, non-labouring speculators. The revolution in the Ukraine became racialised, and these notions were part of the ideological baggage in the heads of the Red forces, which were overwhelmingly composed of Ukrainian partisans as the Bolsheviks had few communist cadres in the Ukraine. Bolshevik slogans such as ‘sweep away the speculators who have stolen from you’ or even ‘beat the bourgeoisie’ could be read in the popular mind as ‘beat the Jews’.

How did the Bolshevik leadership respond to this ugly situation? One has to bear in mind the perilous situation of Soviet power in these years. Facing both internal and external counter revolution, hunger and disease stalked the revolution. The need to keep the Red Army fed and infrastructure such as the railways operational took enormous effort. 

According to McGeever it wasn’t simply the dire straits of Soviet power that led to a slow response from the Bolshevik leadership. Their weak theoretical understanding of antisemitism was also a factor. In March 1919 Lenin recorded a gramophone speech in which he defined antisemitism simply as the action of ‘capitalists, who strive to sow and foment hatred between workers of different faiths, different nations and different races’. To the Bolshevik leadership antisemitism was seen as something instigated from above by the forces of counter-revolution, just as the old Tsarist regime had used it to weaken any challenges to the autocracy.  As Preobrazhenskii put it, antisemitism was due to Russian capitalists who ‘raised the hunt against the Jews’ in order to ‘divert the anger of the exploited workers’.

This lack of understanding of popular antisemitism meant an inability to conceptualise or deal with antisemitism within the revolution. Furthermore, those Bolshevik leaders from a Jewish background were very much ‘non-Jewish Jews’. They had little knowledge of the lives or world view of the Yiddish-speaking Jewish masses in the Ukraine. Similarly, the Bolsheviks had barely any Jewish members in the Ukraine or its military forces.

Resisting antisemitism

There were sporadic attempts to counter the pogroms and racism in these years, particularly in April/May 1918 and the second half of 1919. These originated from non-Bolshevik Jewish revolutionaries acting within the Jewish departments and sections of the government and later the Bolsheviks (Evsektsiia) after these activists broke with their respective parties. The Moscow Sovnarkom (Soviet of People’s Commissars) responded by publishing articles on antisemitism in the press, issuing posters and distributing leaflets in affected areas.

In 1919 the Evkom (the Jewish Commissariat within the Commissariat for Nationalities) called for the Cheka to create special units for combating antisemitism. This was unsuccessful but in August a Committee for the Struggle Against Antisemitism within the Commissariat for Enlightenment was created which existed until early 1920. The committee framed antisemitism as a ‘cultural phenomenon to be tackled by an educative and interventionist politics’. The central arena for its work was the Red Army and it ‘identified schools, cinemas, theatres, cinema, drama, art and music’ as key sites for tackling antisemitism. It organised lectures and produced pamphlets including ones in colloquial Russian aimed at peasants. 

A Bolshevik pamphlet against the pogroms: 'Who organised the pogroms against the Jews and for What Reason' (Moscow: 1924)
A Bolshevik pamphlet against the pogroms: ‘Who organised the pogroms against the Jews and for What Reason’ (Moscow: 1924)

The Jewish left were divided between territorialists, such as the Bund and the United Jewish Socialist Workers Party (the Fareynikte), and left Zionists such as Poalei Zion. One of the things that surprised me most was that the best elements of Poalei Zion put aside their dreams of a territorial state in Palestine and joined in the struggle to defend their communities and the revolution. Under the pressure of the civil war these organisations of the Jewish left split with the left and formed new organisations – the Jewish communist party (from Poalei Zion), and the Yidisher Komfarband (the Jewish Communist Alliance, from the left of the Bund and the Fareynikte). The Komfarband eventually merged into the Bolsheviks. These represented major ruptures in Jewish politics.

It was individuals from the Jewish far left that pushed the Bolsheviks and the Soviet government into tackling antisemitism and provided the tools with which to do so. Such a process dovetails, as the author explains, with Satnam Virdee’s argument in Racism, Class and the Racialised Outsider that anti-racism in European socialism often had to be introduced by racialised minorities excluded from predominant understandings of the national community.

At the same time the growing slaughter of Jews by Petliura’s Ukrainian nationalists in early 1919 led to many Ukrainian Jews joining the Red Army. As a leaflet of the Fareynikte communists put it: ‘The Jewish worker in this situation has no choice: either fall, as silent victims, or fight, as heroes, to the last drop of blood’.

At the founding conference of the Komfarband in May 1919 this dynamic was summarised:

[T]he wave of pogroms against the Jews has not been able to stop the revolutionary process, on the contrary, it has acted to further raise the level of revolutionary energy among the urban [Jewish] poor, before whom stands the prospect of physical extermination.

This is captured in this amazing description by a Zionist opponent of the revolution: 

In the station at Klinovka I was amazed to see a Red Army company composed entirely of Jews, even some with earlocks. These were Yeshiva students from Proskurov who had joined the Red Army in the wake of Petliura’s pogrom in order to take revenge…and I, the Zionist opponent of Communism…I was filled with pride seeing those Jewish fellows.

The road to communism for the Jewish masses came through resistance to antisemitism. For them antisemitism was the ‘modality in which the revolution was lived’.

Jewish Red Army unit, 1918. Banner reads: '1st Red Army Unit of the Jewish Social-Democratic Workers' Party Poalei Zion'. From the archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York.
Jewish Red Army unit, 1918. Banner reads: ‘1st Red Army Unit of the Jewish Social-Democratic Workers’ Party Poalei Zion’. From the archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York.

Reinscribing antisemitism

In one of the most challenging sections of the book, the chapter ‘Reinscribing Antisemitism’, McGeever argues that antisemitism re-emerged even within the very communist campaigns against it. A key element of antisemitic thinking was the belief that the Jewish body was unfit for combat and that the Jews in the Red Army were given comfortable administrative work. So pressure was put on Jews in the Red Army not to take such jobs. In other words, the Jews, not the racists, were seen as the problem. This arises most shockingly in Soviet government discussions in late 1919 over how to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of Ukrainians after the counter revolution had been defeated. In the Ukraine itself, the Soviet government discussed removing Jews from the government. Lenin in a resolution for the party conference in December 1919 argued for the need to defeat ‘Great Russian Chauvinists’ in the party and to make concessions to nationalist feelings in the Ukraine. In the earliest version of his theses on ‘Soviet Power in the Ukraine’, Lenin advised the party to keep a tight rein on Jews and urban inhabitants in Ukraine and to reduce their numbers in government.

McGeever makes it very clear that this wasn’t because Lenin was a racist, but because he wanted Jews to act less like their racist stereotypes. But this still meant capitulating to the idea that there were ‘too many Jews in the Soviet government’. 

Trotsky, the commander of the Red Army, had at first opposed being appointed the People’s Commissar for War and turned down other senior positions in the Soviet government in 1917 and 1922 on the basis that it would be better if there were no Jews in the Soviet government. Even as an internationalist and as someone totally aloof from Jewish traditions he was aware of the depths of antisemitism.

Such views were also held by many of the Jewish communists who unlike Trotsky were embedded in Jewish traditions. Here is Samuil Agurskii of the Evsektsiia speaking at the latter’s second congress:

We must put the Jewish petit bourgeois on the way to becoming useful to society, instead of a parasite and a burden. As soon as possible we must use exceptional measures to rescue the Jewish masses from hunger and want – and from engaging in speculation – which will surely weaken antisemitism also.

Such conceptions of Jews from within Jewish left political circles and beyond were quite common. The idea that Jews had to be ‘productivised’ was a frequent theme in Jewish social reform movements during the 19th and early 20th century. Anyone who has read Borochov, the Russian theoretician of Marxist Zionism, will know that his argument for a Jewish homeland is to ‘normalise the Jews’. He argued that Jews living in the diaspora had an unnatural social structure, an inverted pyramid, because they were absent from productive work in industry or agriculture and that only in their own state would a Jewish peasantry and proletariat (alongside a Jewish bourgeoisie) be created that could then fight the class struggle.

The notion that Jews could only be redeemed in a state of their own was of course a cornerstone of Zionism. Only in Palestine, the ‘new’ Jew, physically reborn from agricultural labour in the sun could emancipate themselves from the weakness and infirmity of life in the ‘diaspora’. But such notions were not simply confined to Jews. In an era where the ‘racial science’ of eugenics dominated, the need for physical exercise and healthy bodies became an obsession for governments concerned about the physical readiness of the masses for both war and the workplace. An analogous concern emerged in the colonial territories where anti-colonial nationalists worried that the (male) colonial subjects had been emasculated by imperial power and sought to promote gymnasiums and boxing as remedies for this.

Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution is a stunning piece of work based on original archival research. Some of what the archives have revealed is disturbing but on wider reflection makes a great deal of sense. Revolution may be necessary to get rid of the muck of ages but that doesn’t happen overnight. And in revolutionary Russia, with the majority of the population still working the land, in the midst of civil war and general hunger, it is not surprising that reactionary and racist ideas persisted. And revolutionaries themselves, however far-sighted, are still products of their time and its prejudices.

But the book illuminates our contemporary landscape too. We are seeing once again the rise of antisemitism across Europe and North America from governments, parties and individuals. Socialists have been quick, quite correctly, to point out that the right and far right are its main source. Nonetheless whilst much of the attacks on ‘left antisemitism’ (as we witnessed during the years Corbyn was leader of the Labour Party) are compromised by their concern to shield Israel from any criticism, antisemitism does exist on the left and shares some of the same features found in revolutionary Russia. An emphasis on ‘finance capital’ and ‘bankers’ rather than the capitalist system as a whole often betrays an unhealthy concern with the ‘Rothschilds’ and speculation, particularly on social media. When the figure of the ‘Jew’ threatens to stand in once again for an exploitative system, we need to learn from the Russian experience.

The book has another lesson for us. Anti-racism does not necessarily emerge spontaneously from radical social movements. It will always need the conscious action of organised socialists, and amongst those socialists the role of the ‘racialised outsider’, such as the Jews of the Tsarist empire, will always be critical.


  • Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution, Brendan McGeever (Cambridge University Press, 2019)



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here