[In] this country there was a time when virtually all intellectual vitality was derived in one way or another from the Communist Party. If you were not somewhere within the party’s wide orbit, then you were likely to be in the opposition, which meant that much of your thought and energy had to be devoted to maintaining yourself in opposition. In either case, it was the Communist Party that ultimately determined what you were to think about and in what terms.
This was written not in the Soviet Union or one of its satellites, but in New York in 1947 by Robert Warshow in Commentary magazine about the American culture of the previous decade. While slightly hyperbolic (the Southern Agrarians, the American Scholar, etc.?) it faithfully describes American Jewish culture of the time, emphatically including its Yiddish branch. At the extreme of this movement were people like Julius Rosenberg, George Koval, and Mark Zborowski, who actively spied for the Soviet Union. At the same time, editors of Communist publications, Hollywood and union activists, party writers and institutional leaders were all directed by Moscow and were joined by rank-and-file members in promoting the virtues of Stalinism over the evils of American constitutional democracy.
A more current source, the Jewish Women’s Archive Encyclopedia, assures us that of about 83,000 Communist Party members in 1943, women formed about 46 percent:
CP historians estimate, moreover, that almost half of the party’s membership was Jewish in the 1930s and 1940s, and that approximately 100,000 Jews passed through the party in those decades of high member turnover. It seems safe to say, then, that Jewish women were one of the CP’s largest sectors during the Depression and war years; and for each who was a “card-carrying” Communist, there were several who took part in party-led mass organizations but did not belong to the party itself. (Entry on Communism in the United States)
The tone here is celebratory, taking pride in Jewish prominence in Communist activities. Like Barbra Streisand’s character in The Way We Were, who enchants the WASPy American Robert Redford, these Communist women are introduced as champions of a noble cause. Vivian Gornick recently gushed in the New York Times over the Communists who prodded the United States “into becoming the democracy it always said it was.”
This is Soviet Communism we are talking about—that killed an estimated 30 million of its own citizens, including through a government-enforced famine in Ukraine, the details of which even people hardened by Holocaust literature have trouble reading. Hitler killed a million Jewish children; Stalin killed more than twice as many children of the Ukraine alone. This is the movement that struck a pact with Hitler precipitating the war against Poland, and built the Gulag, which far surpassed Hitler’s concentration-camp network in the number of victims. This was the totalitarian regime that perfected Orwellian language in a culture of lying that not only camouflaged its evil through innocuous terminology as the Nazis did with terms like resettlement for extermination and cleansing for murder, but justified a culture of spying, expropriation, mass murder, and tyrannical rule in the name of “egalitarianism” and “international peace.”
Regarding Jews and Judaism, Soviet Communism forbade the practice of religion and the study of Hebrew. The Jewish section of the Communist Party took the lead in persecuting rabbis and teachers, killing some, sending others to certain death. The Soviets hailed the 1929 Arab massacres of Jews in Palestine as the start of the Arab Communist Revolution and formulated the slogans of anti-Zionism that are the basis of anti-Semitism in America today. Soviet propaganda accused Jews of imperialism in the 1930s and (with the Arabs) of racism in the 1970s. It lured Jews with false promises to an outpost in Birobidzan and demonized the Jewish yishuv in the Land of Israel. The Soviets used the Jewish anti-Fascist Committee to win American support during the Second World War and then executed its leadership in 1952. Might Gornick say that in these ways Communism prodded Jews into becoming the righteous people they always aspired to be?
We Americans and Jews ask nations that once succumbed to fascism and practiced genocide in its name to acknowledge their past evils. We do so not to perpetuate guilt, but because self-awareness alone prevents repetition of the same behavior. How then can Americans and particularly the Jews among them perpetuate the romance—or the innocence—of the Bolshevik regime?
Today no one has the excuse that “we did not know what was happening.” We know, we know, we know—and if we pretend not to know let Robert Conquest and Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Martin Amis’ Koba the Dread become our required reading alongside Elie Wiesel.
In no way does any of this imply that Jews are responsible for Communism as some of its former European subjects try to claim. That false accusation should be exposed as strenuously as any blood libel or accusation of deicide. Communism did at least as much damage to Jews as to any other people, but in the name of that damage, we are also obliged to take seriously that many Jews supported one of the most murderous regimes in history and to see how and why and to what extent they went wrong. That Sen. McCarthy’s public hearings in the 1950s were almost as “un-American” as the activities being investigated dare not continue to be used as exculpation for the harm that American Communism did in concealing Soviet crimes, subverting American institutions, and opposing the Jews’ recovery of their ancestral homeland.
Jews accepted the Torah at Sinai to save them from the evil consequences of good intentions. The Torah’s prohibitions against idolatry were intended to protect us from precisely the horrors that Communism’s “good intentions” imposed in its place. Idealism is no justification for moral shortcuts, and revolution no substitute for civilization.
This article is part of a week-long Tablet series analyzing the 100th anniversary of the Soviet Revolution.
Ruth R. Wisse, the author of the Nextbook Press book Jews and Power, is currently senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund.