Trotsky as Jew
To the Editor:
At the least a reviewer should be consistent, a quality Joel Carmichael seems to lack in his review of my book, Trotsky and the Jews [Books in Review, June]. In his articles on Trotsky (Encounter, May, June, 1972), Mr. Carmichael seemed to have arrived at a conclusion similar to my own, for he wrote of Trotsky’s “. . . built-in motive for minimizing” his Jewishness, and referred to his ambivalence as an “unavowed, indeed suppressed factor.” Moreover, he took Isaac Deutscher to task for this very misapprehension, for, in his (Mr. Carmichael’s) words: “In dealing with Trotsky’s Jewishness—in my view, an important factor in his political career—Deutscher debars himself as it were in advance from making it intelligible” (emphasis added).
In Trotsky and the Jews I was trying to fill this gap in Deutscher’s trilogy. Unfortunately, . . . Mr. Carmichael, having seen the light only for a short while, is now beating a retreat. But his strictures on my work seem to be unfounded. Indeed, an absolutely complete account of Trotsky’s life and career from a Jewish standpoint cannot be written precisely because he did his best to evade his Jewish identity and avoid any appearance of Jewishness. Consequently, we are driven to look at “sidelights” and at situations where he was caught, as it were, unaware in order to deal with his deep-rooted and all-too-conspicuous ambivalence.
Seen in this light, one has no reason to doubt the authenticity of the report of Trotsky’s attendance at the famous Zionist Congress of 1903. This was confirmed to me by two independent sources: Marc Jarblum, the Socialist-Zionist representative at the Second International and a friend of Leon Blum, Jaures, and Vandervelde; and Moshe Novomeysky, the well-known social-revolutionary, Zionist, and industrialist. Similarly, I fully accept as genuine the reminiscences of Nahum Yerushalmi, the Nicolayev-born Zionist, later educator and author in Jerusalem, regarding Trotsky’s advice to the Zionist students to follow Jabotinsky’s leadership in Jewish self-defense.
On the other hand, Mr. Carmichael seems to be blind to some of the most obvious facts indicating Trotsky’s inability to cast off his Jewish identity and heritage. At the second Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic party he fought with the Bund as a self-proclaimed Jew. In 1917 he adamantly refused Lenin’s offer of the post of Commissar for Home Affairs for fear of anti-Semitic repercussions; and during the Civil War he urged the Politburo to send more Jews to the front lines with a view to obviating anti-Jewish accusations of “goldbricking.”
Mr. Carmichael’s charge that I was “disingenuous” in suggesting that Trotsky wrote more about the “Jewish Question” than any other Marxist ideologists, since “the others wrote practically nothing,” is, of course, wrong; he is apparently unaware of the fact that Lenin wrote quite extensively on the Jewish problem.
But the gravest shortcoming of Mr. Carmichael’s review is its failure to grasp the full significance of Trotsky’s ambivalence while standing at the Jewish ideological crossroads. Winston Churchill seized the horns of the dilemma in his famous article (in the Illustrated Sunday Herald, London, February 8, 1920), in which he suggested that Trotsky had been the epitome of the crucial historic confrontation between Zionism and Communism. The one thing one cannot say of Trotsky, as Mr. Carmichael does, is that whatever he wrote of Jewishness was “banal and predictable.” In 1938 Trotsky predicted the Holocaust and expressed his fear of the physical annihilation of seven million Jews in Europe. A year earlier he admitted the need for a “territorial” solution to the Jewish problem. These are far-reaching views. To be sure, in subscribing indirectly to the Zionist solution, it did not follow that Trotsky himself would have become a pilgrim to Zion: Zionism dawned on him too late in the day for that, but I am convinced that had Stalin spared him another eight years of life to witness the establishment of the State of Israel, Trotsky would have sanctioned this historic fact, even if only as a “temporary” solution to the Jewish problem until the Communist “millennium” was finally ushered in. In this respect, Mrs. Beba Idelson’s interview with Trotsky in 1937, which I cite in my book, is very illuminating.
Deutscher’s attempt to explain away the inherent ambivalence of Jewish Marxists by adopting a hollow quibble—“the non-Jewish Jew”—falls flat in the light of Trotsky’s career. But Mr. Carmichael seems to have fallen into Deutscher’s trap. He, too, fails to realize that Jewish history has its own rules as to whether or not to accept a person’s renunciation of his Jewishness. A man of such gigantic stature as Trotsky could not just proclaim himself as having been cut off from the Jewish people, and Jewish history has finally caught up with him. Not to understand this is to fail to delve into the inner workings of Trotsky’s soul.
Joel Carmichael writes:
I’m very sorry that Joseph Nedava is so annoyed with me for criticisms of his Trotsky and the Jews that I regard as negligible. I feel all the more apologetic since I subscribe wholeheartedly to his central thesis—that Trotsky suffered, as Mr. Nedava says, from a “deep-rooted . . . ambivalence.” Indeed, I regard that ambivalence, united with his flawed character as a whole, as explaining the crucial episodes in Trotsky’s career, notably his being eliminated with such ease from the Bolshevik party during the early 20s. 1 thought my review had made it clear that it was not the fact of Trotsky’s preoccupation, in his own way, with the “Jewish problem,” that was at issue but the problems inherent in any attempt to document it. As Mr. Nedava himself agrees: a “complete account of Trotsky’s life . . . from a Jewish standpoint cannot be written” . . . because, of course, he avoided the whole subject. That is all I mean—there is not much actually to say about something that is quite obvious.
One is bound to accept Jarblum’s and Novomeysky’s word for Trotsky’s presence at the 1903 Zionist Congress. But what does it mean? No one else mentions it; neither source reports a word Trotsky said; most telling of all, Trotsky’s violent attack on Her/1 and the Zionists (“adventurers,” etc.) is so shallow, so banally “Marxist,” in a bad sense, that it is hard to imagine Trotsky’s having been in close contact with flesh-and-blood Jews. So if his presence at the Congress is a fact, it is one that tells us precisely nothing.
Yerushalmi does not merely report Trotsky’s advice to the Zionist students, as Mr. Nedava mentions, he offers some plainly foolish “reminiscences” about Trotsky, “leader of the Social-Democratic party,” “conducting revolutionary activities throughout the Ukraine” from an “apartment” [sic] in Kiev. He does not, in short, tell us much.
Though Trotsky fought the Bund at the 1903 Social Democratic Congress as a Jew, he plainly did so in order to heighten the effectiveness of his attack. It was at this time, after all, that in an argument with Vladimir Medem he made his celebrated remark about being “neither a Russian nor a Jew, but a Social Democrat!”
When one considers the range of both Lenin’s and Trotsky’s writings, it would seem obvious that the “Jewish Question” was the smallest of their concerns, at least—in Trotsky’s case—explicitly. Nor is this surprising; all classical Marxism has to tell us is that the Jews, having survived for discreditable reasons, should finally toss in the sponge and vanish.
Surely Mr. Nedava is mistaken in calling a “territorial” solution of the “Jewish problem” a form of Zionism: when Trotsky was forced to accept a territorial solution, after decades of denigrating Zionism, he did not become a Zionist even theoretically: he was reverting to a Bundist notion; and he had simply made one more of his countless mispredictions.
I don’t think I understand Mr. Nedava’s remark about my “fall[ing] into Deutscher’s trap.” Deutscher, on this question as on all other crucial questions, was simply dishonest—dishonest in the service of his own “universalizing” Marxist tendency. If Trotsky was a yeshiva bocher writ large, Deutscher was one writ small. He systematically distorted Trotsky’s Jewishness in the service of the same tendency. I, on the other hand, accept Trotsky’s Jewishness completely, entirely in accord with Mr. Nedava. The very fact that Mr. Nedava, whose knowledge of the background seems encyclopedic, cannot adduce more “evidence” for that Jewishness confirms, I think, the point I made in my review.