Nadeslal Jacek Schatz
Fragments from: The Generation. The rise and fall of Jewish communists of Poland.
Generation and the riddle of radical Jews.
„The truest community to which one can belong,” Robert Wohl has written, „is that defined by age and experience” (1979: 203). Those who form the subject matter of this study formed such a community. Even close to the end of their lives, they were deeply aware of the fact that their individual biographies formed part of the common history of their generation.
Thus, this is a story about a generation: an extraordinary generation whose life was shaped by dramatic historical change and upheaval, by tremendous hope and frustration, by ideology, ethnicity and politics. This is the story of the times and path of the generation of Polish-Jewish Communists.
They became seized by the Communist vision in a time when this vision could be regarded as heralding an approaching age of fundamental general redemption. Despite frustrations and disappointments they remained faithful to its basic core until the time of their final existential defeat. Although it went almost unnoticed, this defeat augured what was to become apparent to the world in less than two decades: the complete moral, ideological, economic and political bankruptcy of the Communist system.
They were not the only Polish-Jewish radicals of their time but, compared to their peers, they were the most radical of all radical Jews.
In modern times radical Jews caught the attention of the world. Men and women of Jewish descent were in such a disproportionate number among the theoreticians, leaders and rank and file of the leftist movements that, depending upon one`s point of view, Jews were prized or cursed for their alleged radicalism. Thus, after having uttered several anti-Jewish remarks in his early years but now deeply impressed by the role played by the Jewish leaders in the socialist movment and the radicalization of the Jewish proletariat in the Russian Empire, London and New York, Engels wrote in 1890: „To say nothing of Heine and Börne, Marx was of purest Jewish blood; Lassalle was a Jew. Many of our best people are Jews. My friend Victor Adler…, Eduard Bernstein…, Paul Singer… – people of whose friendship I am proud, are all Jews! Have I not been turned into a Jew myself by the `Gartenlaube'?”1 In a lecture in Geneva in 1905 Lenin said: „The hatred of the czars was particularly directed against the Jews. The Jews provided an extremely high percentage (compared to the total of the Jewish population) of leaders of the revolutionary movement. In passing, it should be said to their credit that today the Jews provide a relatively high percentage of representatives of internationalism compared with other nations.”2 On the other hand, King Fredrick Wilhelm IV of Prussia lamented „the disgrace which the circumcised ringleaders among the revolutionaries had brought upon Germany.” A report written by the Prussian police in 1879 about the connection between Jews and the Social Democratic party stated that Jews support socialist ideas financially and by advocating them in the press, and concluded that „if we add the fact that the most prominent leaders of the revolutionary parties in the various countries are Jews, such as Karl Hirsch in Bruxelles, Karl Marx in London, Leo Fraenkel in Budapest and that the large party of Russian nihilists … consists mostly of Jews, there is reason to justify the claim that Jewry is by nature a revolutionary movement.”3 The Russian czar Nicholas II complained to his wife that „nine-tenths of the troublemakers are Jews.” The Russian Minister of Interior Plehve noted that 70 % of all political dissidents known by the police were Jews,4 while Count Witte conveyed to Theodor Herzl in 1903 that in his opinion the proportion of Jews among Russian revolutionaries is fifty percent.5 Incidentally, sixty five years later, upon learning of the riots at the 1968 Democratic National convention in Chicago, President Nixon wondered „whether all the indicted conspirators are Jews, or whether … only about half are.”6
In discussing the subject of Jewish radicals – or, as some prefer to say, Jewish radicalism – in modern times it is important to keep in mind that extreme radicals formed but a tiny minority among Jews as a whole. Theories equating Jews with radicalism have, simply, no substance and are either a product of incompetence or prejudice. On the other hand, the disproportionate participation of Jews in leftist parties and movements has historically been highly significant (and highly visible). In other words, although there have been few radicals among Jews, there have been many Jews among radicals.
Much ink has been used (and not a little wasted) in trying to solve the riddle of Jewish radicalism. Let us take a look at a couple of typical examples.7 If intellectuals as such form a „relatively classless stratum which is not too firmly situated in the social order”,8 Jewish intellectuals falling inbetween Jewish and non-Jewish segments of society must be even more so. Thus, one can find theories attributing Jewish intellectual radicalism to their positively interpreted cosmopolitism and secular, messianic universalism, which is said to allow Jews to become true internationalists and to formulate ideas about how to reform society. This is expressed most prominently and most affirmatively by Isaac Deutscher who sees the revolutionary „non-Jewish Jew” as one who continues a specifically Jewish tradition of „transcending” the borders of Judaism when they are „too narrow, too archaic, and too restricting” in order to strive „for the universal, as against the particularist, and for the internationalist, as against the nationalist solutions to the problems of their time” (1968; 33). Similar theories attribute Jewish radicalism to a marginal, isolated position in the middle class, which is said to transform Jews into radicals fighting for ideas and making them, in Robert Michels` words „apt to find a shorter road to socialism than the Gentile” (1962: 247-248). There are other theories which oppose marginality and the corresponding idea of classlessness as causes of radicalism, proposing instead to look to structural determinants of embeddedness in certain social strata.9 Still others see structural reasons as a general background and random or coincidence as the factor which explains why concrete persons become involved with different political ideologies and movements.10
Another group of theories seeks to explain the phenomenon of Jewish radicalism by referring to Jewish cultural heritage in which messianism is said to have special appeal. This position is best expressed by Nicolas Berdyaev, in whose view „the most important aspect of Marx`s teaching” can be explained by the fact that „the messianic expectations of Israel” remained in his subconsciousness, and that, therefore, the proletariat was for him „the new Israel, God`s chosen people, the liberator and the builder of an earthly kingdom that is to come.” Communism is for Berdyaev „a secularized form of the ancient Jewish chiliasm,” because „a messianic consciousness is surely always of ancient Hebrew origin” (1961: 69-70).11 Similar modern theories are exemplified by Lawrence Fuchs (1956) whose theory, although conceived of as an explanation of American Jewish liberalism, can be adapted to explain Jewish radicalism as well. Fuchs attributes a supposed Jewish yearning for justice to the effect of the Jewish religious imperative of tikkun olam (repair of the world), the prophetic traditions, the love for learning and immunity from ascetism, which direct activity into the concrete world of economy and politics. Referring to some observations made by Fuchs and also by Nathan Glazer (1970), Stephen Whitfield proposes paying attention to yet another possible explanation, namely, Jewish intellectuality as the chief factor. „If Jews have been disproportionately radicals, it may be because they have been disproportionately intellectuals.” Thus, intellectuality would cause Jews to question the dogmas and practices of the world, for which „revolutionary politics was a natural outlet” (1985: 39-40).
Other theories point out deprivation and anti-Semitism as the main causes of Jewish radicalism. Thus, Hugo Valentin, arguing primarily against racist doctrines (but also against those who attribute Jewish political radicalism to cultural heritage), states simply that the only explanation for the participation of Jews in the Communist movements of Eastern Europe was their hopeless predicament of misery, prosecution and anti-Semitism. He supports his point by stating that „… in America, Italy, Western Europe, Scandinavia,” where Jews were treated as equals, they „should not be on average more radical than the non-Jewish members of the social classes to which they came to belong” (1935: 219). Similarily, Michels points out that „the legal emancipation of the Jews has not… been followed by their social and moral emancipation” (1962: 247), and that this deprivation together with a traditional yearning for justice explains political radicalism among Jews. In the context of the deprivation approach, Whitfield points out that in order to avoid simplification the term should be understood in a broad sense: „The discrepancy between the exalted religious and historical status and a low civic and economic state, and between their own ethical sensitivities and the cruelty which their neighbors often exhibited… might also trigger the need to remedy gross unfairness through pursuit of revolution” (1983: 146). W. D. Rubinstein (1982) explains an alleged inclination of Jews toward leftist radicalism by the social-political circumstances in Europe after Jewish emancipation. Turning toward the right was then unthinkable because of its anti-Semitism and conservatism, while the left was striving for universal equality. In other words, involvement with the left is here thought to be in line with Jewish self-interest.
There is also a relatively rich flora of psychological or psychologizing theories on this subject. Lewis Feuer (1969) attributes a radical „conflict of generations” to the workings of the Oedipus complex, which, in principle, could also be applied in the case of young Jewish radicals. Disputing theories that attribute the leftist radicalism of revolutionary Jews to a secularized cultural heritage of messianism, Robert Wistrich seeks a general explanation in their self-hatred, their „Jewish anti-Semitism” or their „ethnic death-wish” caused by „the marginality of the assimilated (or semi-assimilated) Jewish intellectual, whose radicalism made him a heretical figure with regard to his minority community and the Gentile world” (1976: 8) and caused him to accept the anti-Jewish heritage and stereotypes of Christianity and the Enlightenment. Similarily, Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin locate Jewish radicalism in the results of a double-marginality of individuals who „do not feel rooted in either the Gentile religion or nation or the Jews` religion or nation.” As a result, they „have become revolutionaries in many instances precisely in order to overcome this rootlessness or alienation” and therefore „seek to have the non-Jews become like them, alienated from traditional religious and national values. Only then will these revolutionaries cease to feel alienated” (1983: 60-61). John M. Cuddihy (1974) finds an explanation of Jewish radicalism in the confrontation between the uncivil, premodern shtetl and the civil, modern Christian society (or a struggle between vulgarity and refinement in which the Jews resist the process of modernization).