Trotsky and the Jews, by Joseph Nedava
Trotsky and the Jews.
by Joseph Nedava.
Jewish Publication Society. 299 pp. $6.00.
Of the disproportionate numbers of Jewish revolutionaries who surged into European society in the wake of the Emancipation, only Leon Trotsky, né Leib Bronstein, achieved supreme eminence. Not only was he the co-founder, with Lenin, of the Soviet state, but his exceptional literary talents, in conjunction with his military role in the Russian civil war, created a reputation that still inflames the imagination of intellectuals everywhere. To be sure, his glittering career ended in tragedy, but this very failure made his name a symbol of “revolutionary purity” and insured his acclaim among disaffiliated radicals and the visionary young.
Trotsky's distinction alone would warrant his interest to students of Judaism and the Jews, but there are other reasons for that interest as well. The time surely has come to reassess the role of the Jews in the Russian Revolution. On the one hand, the “responsibility” of the Jews for the Bolshevik success, to say nothing of their attraction to revolutionary movements in general, has been wildly exaggerated by primitive anti-Semites; on the other hand, the Jewish participation in the Russian Revolution has been systematically played down by many Jews, especially by Jewish Marxists, for whom Jewishness as such is considered a piece of outworn and essentially “irrelevant” historical baggage.
Joseph Nedava, an Israeli historian, has recently attempted a revaluation of Trotsky with particular attention to the Jewish factor. He has collected many interesting sidelights and has, above all, discussed the Jewish relationship to the Russian Revolution with agreeable frankness. Yet his book falls disappointingly short of its aim.
Professor Nedava wishes to demonstrate that Trotsky, despite passionate disclaimers of Jewish identification, was far more involved with Jewish matters than he seemed to be. Unfortunately, Professor Nedava is hampered by the absence of substantial documentation for his thesis. (His statement that Trotsky wrote more about the “Jewish Question” than any other Marxist ideologist is disingenuous; the others wrote practically nothing.) Thus, from among Trotsky's voluminous writings he has retrieved a report on the Beilis “blood-libel” case of 1912, a description of a pogrom, a discussion of Zionism, etc. He has even found some indication that Trotsky attended the famous Zionist Congress of 1903 (where the question of Uganda was debated). All of this is undoubtedly interesting, even moving, yet it is no more than a footnote to a character that, in Professor Nedava's hands, remains stubbornly, and perhaps fatally, remote. For no matter how Trotsky may actually have felt about his Jewishness, what he explicitly wrote on the subject was, for the most part, banal and predictable, as in his routine anti-Zionism. (Though he did change his mind, after the advent of Hitler, on the question of the desirability of a “territorial” solution to the Jewish problem, there is really no proof whatsoever—as Professor Nedava is obliged to admit—that Trotsky ever became sympathetic to Zionism.)
The absence of genuine documentation, as well as the author's unfortunate tendency to enclose his discussion in one framework after another—the condition of the Jews in Russia, the perniciousness of Diaspora life, and so on—ultimately has a crippling effect. It becomes all too plain that Professor Nedava's wide-ranging sweep is really a form of padding. Probably it is his need for material that renders him particularly gullible with respect to the legends that Trotsky, like most celebrities, became encrusted by. Thus Nedava cites a memoir published in an Israeli newspaper a decade after Trotsky's murder; its author, recalling Jewish student life in southern Russia before the abortive revolution of 1905, mentions Trotsky as “head of the Social-Democratic party,” who was “conducting revolutionary activities throughout the Ukraine from an apartment in Kiev.” Since Trotsky had no organizational connection at all, this sounds like retrospective hagiography. The spuriousness of the memoir is accentuated by its curious conclusion: Trotsky abruptly abandoning his far-flung “revolutionary activities” and urging the students to follow Jabotinsky, the Zionist leader then engaged in Jewish self-defense!
Intent upon piling up external demonstrations of Trotsky's alleged Jewishness, Professor Nedava ignores Trotsky's inner agitation over his ancestry, surely of deeper moment. Granting Trotsky's “Jewish heart,” what really demands exploration is the tension between it and Trotsky's Marxist head. Professor Nedava simply bypasses all this. Nor does he shed the requisite light on Soviet history as it affects his subject. His discussion of the so-called “Moscow Show Trials” of 1936-38, the culmination of Trotsky's Satanization, is particularly scanty. These charades eliminated all the Old Bolsheviks and served as a cover for the unpublicized extermination of more than eight million people, put to death as “Trotsky's agents,” at a time when Trotsky himself was a helpless exile. Though he took incredible pains to demolish the “charges” made against him at the “trials,” Trotsky was unable to explain the charades themselves or the monstrosities of the Stalin regime. For his part, Professor Nedava restricts himself to noting Trotsky's emphasis on the anti-Jewish element in the trials, really one of their minor features.
As I have noted, Nedava is on firmer ground when discussing Jewish participation in the Russian Revolution. He shows that the notion that the Jews were “behind” the Russian Revolution is a delusion of congenital anti-Semites; it is engaging to recall that the Bolsheviks were financed not by rich Jews, as the myth would have it, but by the German General Staff and Foreign Office, including Ludendorff, later to become a Hitler sympathizer. In fact, the Jews, as a community, were a negligible quantity in the Revolution. Since 80 per cent of them were “bourgeois,” they were ruined economically. In a splendid quotation—from Jacob Maze, the Chief Rabbi of Moscow (1921)—Professor Nedava sums it up: “The Trotskys make the revolutions, and the Bronsteins pay the bills.” But even this is an exaggeration. Jews figured negatively, so to speak, in the Russian Revolution by enabling the enemies of the Bolsheviks to stir up a powerful current of folk anti-Semitism; on the positive side, they were forced to defend the Soviet regime represented by the Bolsheviks during the subsequent Civil War precisely because there was no place for Jews in the camp of the White Guards.
Indeed, it is because Jews were essentially on the sidelines during the Revolution and the civil war—or rather, were the target of varying forces for different reasons—that Trotsky provides an archetypal paradigm for Jewry: he was a fanatic without a base. Shaped, no doubt, by his Jewish background, he was a classic representation too of the rupture that marked his generation of Jews—the revulsion against the values of the shtetl in favor of a set of universal ideas that were powered unmistakably, though distortedly, by a millennial religiosity. Trotsky and the Jews is a commendable, if defective, attempt to do justice to the entire vital theme suggested by the interaction between Jewry at large and the aspirations of its gifted deserters.