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Trotsky the Jew

Joshua Rubenstein’s new biography obscures the Russian revolutionary’s violent extremism while overemphasizing his Jewishness

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Leon Trotsky (Library of Congress)

According to Amazon.com, there are presently in existence 199 biographies of Leon Trotsky—almost a quarter as many as there are of Marilyn Monroe (810). Joshua Rubenstein’s new work, Leon Trotsky: A Revolutionary’s Life, is a specialized one issued by a Yale series called “Jewish Lives,” which is “designed to illuminate the imprint of eminent Jewish figures” on culture, broadly defined. There is no question that genetically speaking, Trotsky was a Jew. But personally and culturally, he emphatically denied any connection with the Jewish people. Quoting from my book Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime:

Trotsky—the satanic “Bronstein of Russian anti-Semites”—was deeply offended whenever anyone presumed to call him a Jew. When a visiting Jewish delegation appealed to him to help fellow Jews, he flew into a rage: “I am not a Jew but an internationalist.” He reacted similarly when requested by Rabbi Eisenstadt of Petrograd to allow special flour for Passover matzos, adding on this occasion that “he wanted to know no Jews.” At another time he said that the Jews interested him no more than the Bulgarians. According to one of his biographers [Baruch Knei-Paz], after 1917 Trotsky “shied away from Jewish matters” and “made light of the whole Jewish question.”

So, it is questionable whether Trotsky can be properly treated as an “eminent Jewish figure.” He certainly would have resented it. He had no idea what caused anti-Semitism, claiming it to be “one of the more malignant convulsions of capitalism’s death agony,” as if it had not existed in the Middle Ages, long before capitalism was born.

He was a renegade. This did not help him to make a successful career in the party. He was resented as a Jew as well as someone who during the decade preceding the Bolshevik power seizure relentlessly criticized Lenin and his followers. His prickly personality also was of no help, contrasting with Stalin’s joviality during the years the two struggled for power.

The situation for Jews in pre-1917 Russia, which shaped Trotsky’s personal and political trajectory, was very difficult. Except for rich merchants and those with a university degree, they were confined to the so-called Pale of Settlement. They were excluded from government posts and altogether treated as second-rate subjects. On occasion, they were victims of vicious pogroms in the course of which they were beaten and killed and their homes looted. This caused many of them to emigrate and the rest to turn to left-wing ideologies. The prevalent opinion was that the Bolsheviks were heavily supported by Jews, but the results of the only free elections held under Bolshevik rule, those to the Constituent Assembly in November 1917, revealed that the Bolshevik vote came not from the Pale of Settlement but mainly from the armed forces and the cities of Great Russia, where hardly any Jews lived. The census of the Communist Party conducted in 1922 showed that only 959 Jews had joined it before 1917. If subsequently the proportion of Jews in the Communist Party exceeded their proportion in the country’s population, so too was that the case in Italy under Fascism. It simply attests to the fact that the Jews are a very articulate and politically engaged people.

Rubenstein, the author of a life of the Soviet writer and journalist Ilya Ehrenburg, has written a competent summary biography of his protagonist. The book adds little that is new to the existing literature, and it has some strange omissions. Trotsky’s role in the Civil War during which he commanded the Red Army—arguably his main contribution to the Bolshevik cause—is disposed of in a few cursory pages. I also found strange the author’s offhand assertion that under the Bolsheviks “the proletariat had succeeded in gaining control of the government.” Where and when? The workers had next to no influence on the policies of the Soviet government, which were managed by intellectuals.

In view of the murderous paranoia of Stalin, it is tempting to gloss over Trotsky’s own ruthlessness and to depict him as a humane counterpart to his rival. This is quite unwarranted. Without a question, Trotsky was better-educated than Stalin and was altogether a more cultivated human being. But his radicalism was not much different than Stalin’s. Rubenstein cites a statement by Trotsky as the motto of his book: “Nothing great has been accomplished in history without fanaticism.” Really? In art, in science, in economics? In fact, fanaticism, which is uncritical belief in something, has always obstructed true accomplishment.

Let us scrutinize briefly Trotsky’s views on such key issues as forced labor, terror, and concentration camps—the outstanding features of the Stalinist regime. On forced labor, Trotsky had this to say in 1921:

It is said that compulsory labor is unproductive. This means that the whole socialist economy is doomed to be scrapped, because there is no other way of attaining socialism except through the command allocation of the entire labor force by the economic center, the allocation of that force in accord with the needs of a nation-wide economic plan.

I imagine that if Stalin was present at the Third All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, at which Trotsky made these remarks, he must have nodded in agreement. In view of Trotsky’s own sentiments, it is likely that if he had succeeded Lenin, we would have witnessed in the Soviet Union much the same oppression of labor as he did under Stalin.

Trotsky had no qualms about introducing into Soviet Russia political terror. Barely two months after the Bolsheviks had seized power, he said:

There is nothing immoral in the proletariat finishing off the dying class. This is its right. You are indignant … at the petty terror which we direct at our class opponents. But be put on notice that in one month at most this terror will assume more frightful forms, on the model of the great revolutionaries of France. Our enemies will face not prison but the guillotine.

He defined the guillotine (plagiarizing the French revolutionary Jacques Hébert) as a device that “shortens a man by the length of a head.” This grisly remark, incidentally, is cited by Rubenstein.

Trotsky demonstrated that this was not empty rhetoric during the rebellion at the Kronshtadt naval base in February 1921. The sailors of Kronshtadt were early and prominent supporters of the Bolsheviks, helping them in October 1917 to seize power in Petrograd and later to defend that city from the Whites. But the sailors gradually became disenchanted with the new regime. In March 1921 they formed a Provisional Revolutionary Committee and refused to obey Moscow’s orders. Upon arriving in Petrograd, Trotsky demanded that the mutineers throw themselves on the mercy of the Soviet government and ordered that the families of the mutineers be taken hostage; one of the regime’s appeals to the rebels threatened that if they continued to resist they would “be shot like partridges.” Trotsky organized the military assault on the island where the base was located: When some of the Red Army soldiers defected to the rebels, he ordered the execution of every fifth soldier who disobeyed orders. The island eventually fell. Trotsky was not proud of his role in this event, as demonstrated by the fact that in his memoirs he hardly mentioned it.

Though the fact is little-known, it was Trotsky, not Stalin, who introduced into Soviet Russia the concentration camp, an institution that under Stalin developed into the monstrous Gulag empire. Trotsky did this in May 1918 in connection with a rebellion of Czech ex-prisoners of war who, en route to the Far East to sail to the western front, rebelled when an attempt was made to disarm them. In August of that year, to protect the railroad line running from Moscow to Kazan, Trotsky ordered a network of concentration camps to be constructed to isolate “sinister agitators, counterrevolutionary officers, saboteurs, parasites, and speculators” who were not executed or subjected to other penalties. Lenin fully agreed with these measures. By 1919, concentration camps were established in every provincial capital. In 1923, Russia had 315 concentration camps with 70,000 inmates.

These facts will not be found in Rubenstein’s book, which, without being an apologia, nevertheless tends to glide over the more savage features of Trotsky’s thought and behavior. My own judgment of Trotsky coincides with that of George Orwell, made in 1939 when Trotsky was still alive and cited in this book:

[Trotsky] is probably as much responsible for [the Russian dictatorship] as any man now living, and there is no certainty that as dictator he would be preferable to Stalin, though undoubtedly he has a much more interesting mind. The essential act is the rejection of democracy—that is of the underlying values of democracy; once you have decided upon that, Stalin—or any rate someone like Stalin—is already on the way.

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Bravo for clear and precise review without political correctness.

nu, you don’t think capitalism aids and abets anti-Semitism and all forms of racism and oppression? i sense a bit of apologetics.

oh orwell. completely useless to contemporary theories of liberal democracies, and the normativizing (read: repressive) cultures they create!

Bennett Muraskin says:

To be fair, Pipes should acknowledge that Trotsky’s views on the Jews and on the use of force mellowed after he went into exile.

During the civil war, Trotsky indeed went to extremes in the heat of battle, but I do not think he would have resorted to the same measures that Stalin enacted without any serious internal or external threats.

gerry kane says:

O.K. I get it. Rubenstein doesn’t quote Pipes or take his point of view which is to demonize Trotsky — especially with respect to the Jewish question. But, an objective reviewer might have pointed out what Rubenstein did say about Trotskyh that contradicted Pipes…added something new about Trotsky’s views about the Jewish question. Not from Pipes. Shame. Always right. Always on the right.

Daniel Abrams says:

Trotsky lives on in the US. The neo-cons started out as Trotskyites at CCNY. This explains a lot of the departures from democratic norms in the war on an adjective.

Danielle says:

He was an atheist. I would not consider him a jew knowing his upbringing in Soviet Russia. His jewish roots was the last thing he worried about. Russian jews were assimilated in Russian culture as my own family there.

Bennett Muraskin says:

His upbringing was in Czarist Russia. He was in his late 30s at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution.

But as a communist revolutionary and an atheist, he repudiated his Jewish origins.

He never identified with the Jewish people, but by the 1930s he did evince a greater concern for the plight of European Jewry.

Hershl says:

Trotsky was not a Jew.

His mother was not Jewish. His father was; hence the name Bronstein.

Sorry to bust your bubble.

“you don’t think capitalism aids and abets anti-Semitism and all forms of racism and oppression?”

Lazer: The point that Pipes was making was that antisemitism’s origins both as an ideology and in terms of its capacity to incite violence predate capitalism.

In that sense, I would say that antisemitism is functionally apolitical, in that both both right-wingers and left-wingers can partake in it.

Indeed, so I’m not sure why Pipes critiques Trotsky regarding something on which the latter is clearly not an expert and is wholly irrelevant anyways…

Although it is true that defining Trotsky as a Jew is highly dubious, there is evidence that he retained some kind of emotional connection to his roots. See joseph Nedava, Trotsky and the Jews (1972, Jewish Publication Society of America). He provided arms to Jews in Kishinev in 1905 and provided evidence that the regime was organizing the pogroms at his trial. He wrote a number of articles attacking anti-semitism in Russia and Romania and also agreed to allow the “Borochov Brigades” to fight in the Red Army during the 1919 Russian Civil War.
There is also strong evidence that towards the end of his life he changed some of his stance on Zionism (a trait he arguably shared with Stalin).

I don’t think he was a Jew any more but he was partially a victim of antisemitism and it seems an error to place a blanket denial on his origins and his connection with those origins.

Michael in Ohio says:

“…contrasting with Stalin’s joviality during the years the two struggled for power.”

Stalin was once jovial? Who knew?

Hershl, where did you get that nonsense? Perhaps you don’t want him to be Jewish but he was Jewish. In 1888 he moved to Odessa to attend a high school and stayed in the house of his uncle Moses (Moishe) Shpentser, the nephew of his mother. Trotsky wrote in his own biography how difficult it was for him to get into the high school due to the percentage norm imposed on Jews by the Russian government (the law prohibited to have more than 10% of Jewish students in any high school).
His parents were secular Jews (not religious). They did not keep their house kosher, nor they observed Sabbath or Tish’a b’av and attended religious services in the synagogue only on the high holidays. Just like the vast majority of the American Jews do nowadays. But you still call them Jews, don’t you? Then why don’t you want to call a Jew Leo Trotsky?

Adam Richmond says:

Trotsky was assassinated again by Richard Pipes, this time on Tablet. Pipes’ hackneyed, ill-informed views on Trotsky have much in common with Stalin’s slanders. In his review, Pipes not only misrepresents Trotsky, the reader is left with no real informed view of Rubenstein’s book. This was quite predicable as Pipes has been exposed for his shoddy work over and over. Why on earth was he permitted to write a review for Tablet?

Bennett Muraskin says:

Trotsky’s parents were both Jewish and was subjected to anti-Semitic abuse by his foes–both pro-capitalist and Stalinist.

Dani ben Leb says:

‘The Left Against Zion’ published by Vallentine Mitchell & Co, 1979 edited by Robert S. Wistrich .
Wistrich was the child of parents who lived through Leon’s dream in the Soviet Union. After being deported twice no less.
Excellent book. It puts Max Blumenthal, Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky, Trotsky and Joseph Dana in perspective.
check it out. available in all good second hand book stores.

Daniel Abrams, the ugly and disgusting origins of Neoconservativism were originally spawned in rancid pools of political Trotskyites in America. You are indeed right. Irving Kristol and his ugly brethren of thugs were ideological admirers of Leon Trotsky and then later he and his pompous progeny Bill Kristol moved into a form of full out Fascism and marched America fatally and fanatically right straight off a cliff.

Dani ben Leb says:

bad weed day, Jules? first signs of paranoia ? people following you?

Nope, not paranoid…are you?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FDEoLJGyCAo

Bad karma’s a real bitch.

Wow jules, a pie in the face is a very eloquent rejoinder. That certainly proves that neoconservatives are Trotskyists on a secret mission to force America to submit to Fascism. I bet they are members of the Knights Templar too. Who knew?

Karl Steffens says:

Interested in Soviet history I eagerly read your book-review. So far your critics convince me to look for a more instructive book on Trotsky. Can you recommend a “information-rich” more balanced biography on L. Trotsky (German, French or English, book, web-source)?

…eventually also on Felix Dzershinsky, Lawrenty Berija, Igor Kurshatov

Thank you very much,

Karl Steffens

herman lebed says:

Trotsky was as fanatical as Djigishvili. He would have found enemies everywhere. The figure of Trotsky was maligned for being Jewish, by many Whites, even Makhnos anarchists, conservatives and anti-Commie rightists have immense joy bringing up the fact he was Jewish; now we have Jews harping on his Jewishness that he downplayed, ignored or hated, depending on the time or year.The point? Karl, I used to be a Communist….for 12 yrs…what do ye want? Djilas’ “The New Class” is good, Orlando Figes, Pipes,too but wait until youve read others first, there are holes in his ideas…Figes goes into detail and uses alot of first hand accounts. Any bio of Stalin….Danilo Kis….the Black Book of Communism, Gulag…..Varlam Shalamov, Evgenia Ginzberg…..

All communists are monsters.

Yitzhak says:

Someone the right wing in Israel can learn from. They have absorbed most of what the Nazis had to teach, and can use a new mentor.

Gorlitzer says:

Thank you for the enlightening and informative piece. In my line of work I spend a significant amount of time in the former Soviet Union. When conversation turns to history, locals do not hesitate to say that many communist leaders in the USSR were Jewish. But for the most part, as this article articulates, Jewishness did not inform their actions as communists. It is a largely irrelevant detail in understanding why the Soviet regime was so bloody. However, the Jewishness of men like Trotsky and the those Jews who made up nearly half of the NKVD leadership who oversaw Stalin`s murderous ethnic cleansing policies on the periphery of the state, does explain (but does not justify) a significant portion of lingering anti-semitism in the region. This is especially in Ukraine and Lithuania — where many citizens are unlikely to ever encounter a Jew.

Yitzhak, Karl seems incapable of seeing or smelling the ugly odor hovering above him, poor ignorant bastard, should we all not now bow and venerate him, and congratulate and love him?

Karl, are you a member of the Mickey Mouse Club? Is that a club you’re carrying or did you just emerge all groggy eyed this morning from a cave?

You are the most captivating of merry clowns, I like that little horn you toot and all of its funny clownish sounds.

Crass Boersting says:

All communists are monsters, as Mark states above. Some communists might be friendly people, good neighbours etc. Potential monsters all the same.
Many a great communist ended up as a corporeal victim, as did Leon Trotsky with an ice ax in his skull.
In purgatory, he’ll be better off than Stalin, but not that much better, when his ideas and actions are examined to the core.
What monsters and swines they all were.

herman lebed says:

Crass—all capitalists are demons. The Americans who commited genocide(democide) against my moithers ancestors are Hitlers antecedents and Stalins, no difference betwixt the one instance of Stalin cleansing Chechens and tatars and Americans relocating(sic) the Cherokee. Or, allowing massacres , ad nauseum, to occur. Sure, Indians rose up, but just because there were numerous “Warsaws” in response doesnt mean it didnt happen.The revisionists hate it whenyou show them actual writing from Washington Jefferson,Lincoln all proudly detailing what is to be done with the “scum, the whelps, the lice” that lived here first. In a letter to his generals , after the war , Washington wrote”they (Iroquois) may come to sign for peace—do not trust them. The eradication of this “people”, they are more akin to wolves, is a must if we are to survive….theres more, lots more, Hitler was in awe of the American holocaust, he thought his would also go unnoticed….

The definitive biography of Trotsky is the three volume: Prophet Armed, Prophet Unarmed and Prophet Outcast by isaac deutscher.

This is poorly written. I don’t give a flip about Trotsky or his Jewishness (or lack thereof), but I am offended by poor writing. The first sentence is enough to discourage a reader. It never ceases to amaze me the quality of people Harvard will put in their so-called history department, also known as “retirement home.” Vince Brown and Laurel Ulrich are the exceptions to the rule.

Hershel (Heshy) Ginsburg says:

An interesting historical irony:

Local lore has it that one of Trotsky’s descendants became an Orthodox Jew, lives in Israel, and studied / studies in a yeshiva in Hebron. According to some sources, he is a Kahanist.

hg

J’lem / Efrata

H. Jones says:

Pipes’ book review was sadly uninsighftul for readers who may have been interested in the connection between Trotsky’s societal background and his political beliefs.

Besides about two paragraphs on Trotsky’s acceptance of an international identity, and one claiming the lack of Jewish connections to the revolution, the article is basically dedicated to condemning Trotsky as a murderous dictator.

In paragraph 5, Richard Pipes, a conservative, downplays the significance of Jewish contributions to the Bolsheviks. He rightly says that discrimination turned them to left wing ideologies, but at the end of the paragraph chalks their significant participation up to generalizations about them “simply” being an “articulate people”.

Pipes then rightly says that at the point of November 1917 most support for Bolsheviks came from the army and cities, rather than shtetls. Of course! How else would you expect the revolution to have occurred. What’s more important is contributions in the years leading to it. 959 may be a pretty large number for a cell-like underground “vanguard” party, and Pipes doesn’t actually say what the proportion was.

Interesting review. Only 959 Jews joined Lenin before the Revolution, a small fraction of the Jewish population. How many total Party members were there? What was the Jewish proportions. While Trotsky was in denial of his Jewish heritage, he was also informed and misinformed by it: the strivings for a supposedly perfect society got distorted by a lack of kindness,balance, and humility. The Torah of the Tanack and Talmud give us a range of options and one has to use one’s inner sense, what Zen Buddhist call kensho, “seeing one’s true self” to sort it out. The distortions inherited by both “Christian” and Jewish readings of the Bible created a horrible chasm within which Leninism filled a psychic gap, but filled it badly. Shalom to all

Admirer says:

The review assumes some level of knowledge about communism, absent in many comments here. While you can Google Jews, Bolshevik Revolution to get more details, I believe Mr. Pipes point is the author of the book has revised history, leaving out the salient facts of his life.

Mr. Pipes, as a student of politics and history, I am a major fan thanks to your book, Communism, A History. I wish you’d written it when I was in college 40 years ago but your perspective is excellent. Sadly, we are seeing history repeat itself: Reading Lenin’s playbook and comparing it to today is amazing. While it is true communism/socialism fail every time, the greedy megalomaniacs use centralized power to control the masses for their personal aggrandizement. The initial use of intellectuals and useful idiots always ends the same way. Thank you for your excellent book.

Trotsky introduced concentration camps to Russia? I didn’t even know there were concentration camps in russia… I feel so uneducated…

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Trotsky the Jew

Joshua Rubenstein’s new biography obscures the Russian revolutionary’s violent extremism while overemphasizing his Jewishness

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