Commentary Magazine

Revolutionary Jews from Marx to Trotsky, by Robert Wistrich

On the Left

Revolutionary Jews from Marx to Trotsky.
by Robert Wistrich.
Barnes & Noble. 254 pp. $16.00.

That jews were involved in great numbers in the development of the socialist movements of the 19th and 20th centuries is well known. But it is hard to know what exactly to make of this phenomenon. Does it represent a revolt against Judaism or is it, on the contrary, an expression of Judaism itself, returning to its purest Mosaic essence as a slave-revolt which validated itself by a law of justice? What kinds of Jews became revolutionaries? How did they envisage their own relationship to their Jewishness? (Here we may allow the reservation that part of their attitude may have been unconscious, and even at odds with their conscious attitude.) Is there, in fact, such a thing as a “Jewish revolutionary” or a “Jewish socialist” of a single, uniform type, or were they all so different that generalizations are unprofitable?

While there have been many obiter dicta and short essays on this topic (of which perhaps the most celebrated is Isaac Deutscher’s “The Non-Jewish Jew”), there has never been a full-length treatment before Robert Wistrich’s absorbing book. Wistrich asks the right questions and gives us the right kind of information. His method is partly a geographical one: he deals with the situation of the revolutionary Jew first in Germany, then in Austria-Hungary, in France, and in Russia. But to offset any possible impersonality in this approach, he also gives us (after a general introduction to each area) biographical treatments of leading figures: in Germany, Karl Marx, Ferdinand Lassalle, Eduard Bernstein, and Rosa Luxemburg; in Austria-Hungary, Victor Adler and Otto Bauer; in France, Bernard Lazare and Léon Blum; in Russia, Julius Martov and Leon Trotsky. These figures are well chosen to set off the different issues and contrasting approaches that are involved, and also to bring out essential similarities.

It might be objected that not all these figures were revolutionaries—Eduard Bernstein, Victor Adler, and Léon Blum were gradualists who believed in working through constitutional means. Yet, as Wistrich points out, they too believed in revolution, the “long revolution,” which would eventually change the fundamental nature of society. One might object too that Wistrich has omitted detailed consideration of the leading figures of the Jewish Socialist Workers’ Bund, and of socialist Zionism, who were also revolutionaries. The answer is that Wistrich is after all concerned with a certain type of Jewish revolutionary—specifically those who cut their links with the Jewish community under the influence of a vision of internationalism. And, indeed, from the standpoint of human tragedy, this is the most interesting type, and the one which provided the figures who played the great roles on the stage of world politics. Wistrich points out their mistakes and illusions; his sympathies are in fact clearly with the Bundists and socialist Zionists who refused to sacrifice their Jewish identity for the sake of an internationalist mirage. Yet the internationalists were more than just deluded individuals, and if I have any criticism of the book, it is that it does not quite bring out the grounds of their greatness, by which I mean specifically their greatness from the Jewish point of view, for, of course, the greatness of figures like Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, or Trotsky from the point of view of world politics does not need demonstration.

On the face of it, it is certainly not easy to see any Jewish significance in these revolutionary Jews. Quite contrary to the picture often given by anti-Jewish, or even pro-Jewish, writers, they did not in any way identify themselves with their Jewish background. Hitler might point, in confirmation of his notion of a “Bolshevist Jewish menace,” to the galaxy of Jewish stars in the history of Communism, but the last thing in the minds of these Jewish leaders was to represent in any way the Jewish community, ethos, or history. In fact, they actively repudiated their Jewish affiliations. Wistrich presents this repudiation with a great wealth of detail, showing for example that the sources of Karl Marx’s appalling On the Jewish Question lie in nothing more or less than traditional anti-Semitism. “His image of the Jew was in fact nothing but the classic stereotype of European Christian society, inherited from the Middle Ages and resurrected with new force in the 1840’s by reactionaries, radicals, and socialists alike.” Marx came from a long line of distinguished rabbis (including Joshua Heschel Lwow), but he had been brought up as a Christian and was utterly unaware of Jewish history or thought. He despised the Jews as a nation of hucksters, and said of them that their god was money. Long before Werner Sombart, he ascribed the growth of capitalism to the “Jewish spirit.” So virulent was his attitude toward Jews (in contrast to the friendlier attitude of Engels, the non-Jew) that the question of “Jewish self-hatred” is inevitably raised. Wistrich has some interesting things to say about this topic, to which I shall return.



From Marx onward, the chief characteristic of the Jewish internationalist revolutionary was his repudiation of Judaism and Jewishness. He looked forward eagerly to the cessation of every form of Jewish identity, so that even Jewish socialism was bitterly opposed as “separatist.” The Bund, after playing a pioneering role in the development of Russian trade-unionism and socialist organization, was forced out of the Russian Social Democratic party largely by two Jews, Julius Martov and Leon Trotsky. Martov, ironically enough, had been one of the Bund’s founders. In those early days he had realized, together with Samuel Gozhansky and Arkadi Kremer, that a Jewish labor movement had to be organized on the basis of the Yiddish language and Jewish identity, not of assimilation. Later, however, under the influence of Lenin, Martov turned against Jewish “separatism” and campaigned ceaselessly against his own creation Still more ironically, it was this anti-Bund policy which later brought about Martov’s downfall and possibly even events of a far greater magnitude. For when Martov, as leader of the Mensheviks, came into conflict with Lenin and his Bolsheviks, he sorely missed those Bundist votes which he had driven out of Russian socialist politics. If only the Jew, Martov, had not betrayed the Jewish Bund, the Mensheviks (minority) would have been the Bolsheviks (majority)—and history would possibly have taken a different turn.

Instructive also is the case of Otto Bauer, the influential Austrian Jewish theorist to whom Wistrich devotes a highly interesting chapter. It was Bauer who restored nationalism to a place of respect in Communist thinking, but the only form of it for which he could find no place was Jewish nationalism. This is all the more remarkable in that Bauer did not define nationalism in territorial terms, but in terms of common history and “community of fate.” By this definition, it would seem that the Jews should have been the supreme illustration of national identity. Instead, Bauer refused to allow that the Jews were a nation at all; they were merely an economic group of moneylenders thrown up by historical circumstances and having no cultural roots.

There were some Jewish revolutionaries who knew better. The most famous is Moses Hess, whose earliest writings were almost as scornful of Judaism as anything in Marx. After first introducing Marxist ideas to Germany, he went on to become the founder of Zionism there also. Wistrich does not devote a chapter to Hess, probably because his story is too familiar. Instead, he gives us a fascinating chapter about a somewhat similar figure, the too-little-known Bernard Lazare. The part played by Lazare in the movement to exonerate Dreyfus, which would never have got under way without him, deserves eternal honor. He sacrificed personal fame and success in order to help the oppressed Jewish masses of Eastern Europe, and died, worn out, at the age of thirty-eight. Yet Lazare too began as a typical Jewish revolutionary, seeing hope for the Jews only in assimilation, despising the Jewish cultural tradition, or what little he knew of it, and regarding both Westernized and Eastern Jews with unmitigated contempt.

The conclusion to which all this would seem to lead is that the Jewish revolutionaries suffered from “Jewish self-hatred,” by which is meant the adoption of anti-Semitic attitudes by Jews. This is plain enough in Marx, Lassalle, and some others, and could even lead, as in the case of the Austrian leader Victor Adler, to complicity in anti-Semitic campaigning. Mostly, however, the anti-Jewish attitudes of the Jewish revolutionaries cannot be regarded as truly anti-Semitic, for they entirely lack the paranoid element of fear of a Jewish world conspiracy. The main feeling they communicated was scorn for what they regarded as the pettiness of the whole Jewish problem. Anti-Semitism itself was regarded as a trivial matter, which would disappear upon the advent of the classless society, and which, in the interim, might even have an occasional tactical usefulness. This attitude was a legacy of the Enlightenment, with its naive expectation of the disappearance of national and cultural differences.



On the subject of Jewish self-hatred, Wistrich’s analysis is unfortunately rather hazy. He suggests that it may have been a factor in the formation of the character of the Jewish revolutionary, arguing that revolutionaries in general tended to come from a bourgeois background and were rebelling against their families, and that in the case of the Jewish revolutionaries, this rebellion was intensified by the internalization of society’s hostility toward the minority group to which they belonged. True, there was a genuine idealism at work which sought to abolish all divisions among human beings; but there was also, Wistrich points out, a brutal indifference to the rights of minority cultures—an indifference which applied not only to the Jews but to other minority cultures such as the South-Slav peasant cultures of Southeastern Europe.

In my opinion, the psychological argument is an inadequate explanation of all this, as superficial in its way as Isaac Deutscher’s in “The Non-Jewish Jew.” In that essay Deutscher argued that what was specifically Jewish about the universalism of the Jewish revolutionaries, among whom he included figures like Spinoza and Freud, as well as Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, and Trotsky, arose from the fact that Jews existed on the margins of the great cultures: as the perpetual outsiders, they were enabled to take the universal view of things. Why, then, one is tempted to ask, have not the Gypsies produced the greatest revolutionary thinkers of all? Deutscher failed to derive the impetus of Jewish revolutionaries from anything positive in their background. He was too much of the Enlightenment savant himself to be able to see that, at bottom, the Jewish revolutionaries (including himself) were produced by Judaism.

Wistrich, too, refuses to acknowledge this, largely, I think, because he is over-cautious. He is concerned, rightly, to combat the usual easy equation of Communism and Judaism, made in their different ways by Hitler and Berdyaev, and he goes out of his way to point out the differences between Jewish religious messianism and Communist secular messianism. Yet it is not for nothing that messianism is a Jewish word. It is really an expression of Jewish universalism, or, to put it in another way, of the Jewish passion for unity. Messianism means that history is not a meaningless jumble of events, but rather a patterned unfolding. This position contrasts both with pagan multifariousness and with Christian dualism (in which unity exists only in another world). Jewish oneness is not a denial of multiplicity, but its resolution into unity, with each individual component transfigured and transcended in the unity attained; and this is why there is no contradiction between Jewish universalism and the stubborn Jewish insistence on separate identity.

In a passing comment, Wistrich points out that the Communist internationalist ideal was based on the “imperialism” of Christian internationalism. This observation would have been worth pursuing. The trouble with the Jewish revolutionaries was that they took from Christian tradition not only its stereotype of the Jew, but also its ideal of internationalism. Yet the fervor with which they pursued this ideal, the talmudic rationalism with which they developed it, and the tragic purity with which they followed it unto death, were all distillations of the Jewish tradition which, albeit unconsciously, they carried with them.

Wistrich’s valuation of the Jewish tradition, then, is, like Deutscher’s, too negative. He sees the Jews as the quintessential oppressed minority, whose survival was more threatened by the Enlightenment than by the plain hostility of old-fashioned enemies. But more important than the Jews’ minority status in my opinion is their universalist message which was continued by Marx and his disciples (but also dangerously perverted because of their inability to discern the roots of their own passion). My disagreement with Wistrich, however, does not lessen my admiration for this important and fascinating writer. The book itself will be indispensable for any further study of its subject.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.