The God That Failed - Notably for Masses of Jews

If by chance the radical left begins raising its head in the Israeli body politic anytime soon, this tome will become an important point of reference.

Members of the Socialist Bund march in a May Day parade, Bialystok, Poland, May 1, 1934.
USHMM / Wikimedia Commons

“Revolutionary Yiddishland: A History of Jewish Radicalism,” by Alain Brossat and Sylvia Klingberg, Verso, $23

In the late 19th century, western imperial Russia was home to nearly 5 million Jews. For generations, life in the shtetls was plagued by poverty, hardship, misery, patriarchy and religious observance. But then, a tumultuous shift took place, as the rise of global capitalism in the region rocked the foundations of traditional Jewish life that had existed for generations.

This catapult into the throes of modernity opened up these new Jewish communities to a plethora of political, social, cultural and intellectual influences. Thus, a new Jewish intelligentsia – one that was attracted to radical left-wing ideas— in Central and Eastern Europe emerged.

Internationalist in outlook, it sought to synthesize modernity with noble old-world Jewish values. It attacked the inward conservatism that religion imposed on its communities, drawing inspiration from the progressive ideologies and rationalism of the Enlightenment era.

“Revolutionary Yiddishland: A History of Jewish Radicalism” focuses on this working class, radical left-wing, Jewish tradition that was a prominent force in Central and Eastern Europe until the eve of the Second World War. First published in 1983 in France, the book is now being published in English translation. The book chronicles the rise of a Jewish workers’ movement and working-class culture under the harsh working conditions in the factories of Eastern Europe’s urban centers. There, Yiddish was the language spoken, and the language in which this community printed its newspapers, propaganda pamphlets, and books.

The book follows this community through the Holocaust, at which point the historical and political landscape drastically changed: Those radical Jews who had once believed in a Marxist utopian future – with working class emancipation, fraternity between peoples, and socialist egalitarianism – now understood that a proletarian revolution was less likely. The evils of fascism and Nazism had been defeated. But the Jews who survived had either emigrated to the West, were roaming around Europe as stateless refugees, or were locked behind the iron curtain of a harsh Soviet regime. The social, cultural and linguistic world of these Yiddish-speaking Jews had almost entirely disappeared overnight.

The three camps

Prior to this shift, the majority of radical Jews in Eastern Europe, as the authors explain, were part of three movements. The Bund, founded in Vilnius in 1897 and disbanded in 1920 after a major split, viewed itself as an integral part of the Russian Social Democratic movement, denouncing Zionist groups as bourgeois and reactionary. Poale Zion, a proletarian movement, had members across Poland, Lithuania and southern Russia, and sought to combine Zionism and socialism. Another group of Jews were part of the international communist movement.

While the history of the Jewish bourgeoisie has been well documented, the voices of the Jewish proletariat have been largely ignored, Brossat and Klinberg argue. This trend is most notable in Israel, where they’ve been purposely erased from the collective historical consciousness, as nationalist mythologies take precedence.

This book contains several interviews with people who were part of these movements. They add color to the narrative, and link history to individual lives, while capturing the hope that these causes brought their followers. As Shlomo Szlein, a dedicated Jewish communist, explains in one interview, younger Jews in the late 1920s had joined the communist movement in eastern Galicia en masse: ”The movement’s power of attraction was that it seemed to promise to resolve both the social question and the national question in a short space of time,” Szlein explains. “The majority of Jewish young people joined it with a Jewish national consciousness,” he states.

Most of these activists were born in the first decade of the twentieth century, in places such as Warsaw, Sarajevo, Galicia and Slonim. Many were arrested, imprisoned and expelled from various countries across Europe for their political activities. But their struggles ended with little more than a whimper. Visions of a triumphant workers’ paradise were replaced by the bittersweet taste of disappointment, feelings of failure, and above all, a sense of ideological betrayal. After the Second World War, the only place for radical Jews to turn was the Soviet Union, where Jews faced discrimination, and the State of Israel, where nationalism was the prevailing ideology. For radical Jews of this era, the revolution had essentially died.

Engaged historians

The book is co-authored by two French academics who feel deeply about the movements they are chronicling. “We did not conduct our interviews as journalists, as curious bystanders, but above all as militants of the same utopia,” they state in the introduction. For most of this book, both Brossat and Klingberg – a philosopher and sociologist, respectively – adopt a Marxist academic language. At times this takes the form of honest admissions of bias, while in other cases it leads to long, rambling sentences.

The authors embrace the Marxist one-dimensional view of history, based on Marx’s theory that history has scientific logic and an endpoint. Since the book was written more than 30 years ago, neoliberalism has become the dominant global ideology, making the authors’ brand of Marxist rhetoric feel like it’s stuck in a time warp.

Still, this does not detract from the book’s historical narrative or analytical value. The authors craft a tragic, melancholy tale full of empathy for the protagonists. Meanwhile, the storyline – the history of European Jewish radicalism – runs parallel to nearly all major political events of 20th century Europe.

The book recounts how on the eve of the October revolution, most politically active Jews in Russia and beyond rejected the Bolshevik program; it describes the thousands of Yiddish-speaking revolutionaries who converged on Republican Spain starting in July 1936 to join the International Brigades to fight the forces of fascism; we hear stories of bravery about the thousands of Jewish proletarians and petty artisans from Central and Eastern Europe who fought in the Resistance in France; we learn that Jewish revolutionaries were still publishing radical Yiddish-language pamphlets and newspapers inside the Warsaw Ghetto; and we read accounts of what life was like for Jews in the Soviet Union, where the promise of full rights for Jews never amounted to anything more than noble rhetoric.

Birobidzhan, a region of Russia that was intended to serve as an alternative homeland for the Jews.
Zightsev, Wikimedia Commons

Brossat and Klingberg spend significant time discussing the brief Yiddish cultural renaissance in the Soviet Union during the 1920s. The Bolsheviks – Stalin, mainly – ensured this cultural movement didn’t last very long, and in the 1930s established the Birobidzhan project, a Jewish autonomous region on the eastern boarders of the U.S.S.R. that for many reasons was a disaster. The book describes how a wave of oppression hit Birobidzhan in the 1930s, presenting it as the center of a vast “cosmopolitan” conspiracy.

Jewish newspapers, libraries and theaters were closed down, major literary figures such as Isaac Babel vanished, and the entire Communist Party leadership there was purged. The authors explain how the Soviets redefined the word cosmopolitan: ”Instead of an individual who considers the whole world his homeland, it was now [defined] as an individual deprived of patriotic sentiment, detached from the interests of his homeland, a stranger to his own people with a disdainful attitude toward its culture.”

Moreover, as red terror became the staple diet of Soviet politics from the 1930s onwards, it was Jews, along with intellectuals, who were often at the receiving end of these totalitarian purges. This horrific anti-Semitism that plagued the Soviet Union reached its apotheosis in the late 1940s and early 1950s, with the famous Doctor’s Plot, when Stalin accused nine doctors, six of them Jews, of plotting to poison and kill the Soviet leadership. They were pardoned by Khrushchev after Stalin died that year, but the episode stirred up anti-Semitism that lasted for years. Both authors see this as the central tragedy of Yiddishland: It ensured that Jews with Marxist leanings had nowhere left to turn.

Trotsky, and Marx before him, may have contended that history has a simple trajectory: Logic and reason connect with scientific certainty. For these radical Jews, however, history seemed more like a chaotic nightmare in which the utopian future they’d been promised never arrived. And so, most of them reluctantly immigrated to Israel.

Wistful aliyah

Haim Babic, a Bund veteran who spent nine years in Soviet prisons and camps finally managed to immigrate to Israel in 1956. In one interview, he sums up the mood that many radical Jews of his generation felt about immigrating: a strange mix of betrayal, compromise, realpolitik and even guilt. “When I arrived in Israel, it was not without pangs of conscience,” Babic recalls. “I knew that the country was not empty before our settlement there. We had experienced a tragedy, but did another people have to pay the price?” he states.

If these radical Jews felt rejected, betrayed and unwanted, living as pensioners in the quiet suburbs of Tel Aviv, it’s hardly surprising. The State of Israel – which both authors argue has been established on ethnic foundations, territorial conquests and militaristic realpolitik alliances – had little time for nostalgic celebrations of a failed, mass socialist movement. Since many of these radical Jews felt emancipation would come through assimilation – rather than through a Jewish homeland – their stories had no place in the Zionist mythology.

Another potential shortcoming in this book is how it glosses over certain key junctures of Israeli history. While much of the narrative seems to almost take offense that the radical left has had a pretty abysmal role in Israeli politics since the founding of the Jewish state, both authors spend little time asking why this may be. There is almost no mention, for instance, of David Ben-Gurion’s decision in 1960 to visit the White House and lay the foundations for a solid relationship between Israel and the United States. This greatly influenced Israel’s ideological direction ever since, namely when Israel chose a side during the Cold War. The move also ensured U.S. financial and military support for Israel. Nor is there any analysis of how Israel’s right wing gained strength starting in the late 1970s. This was almost single-handedly driven by Likud founder Menachem Begin, who gleaned his ideas from Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who believed in a militaristic Zionism.

Both of these topics are important, especially if one is to understand why Israel has drifted further to the right – and become increasingly militaristic, religious and nationalistic, and has not become home to an active radical left-wing movement, which is one of the book’s main points.

Altogether, “Revolutionary Yiddishland” is a thoroughly engaging read. It’s an important historical document preserving the memory of this radical period of Jewish and European history. And if by chance the radical left – by some miracle – begins raising its head in the Israeli body politic anytime soon, this tome will become an important point of reference.