Home » History

“Of course, Trotsky was an alternative to Stalin”

An interview with Professor Mario Kessler on the Trotsky biography by Robert Service—Part two

By Wolfgang Weber
22 May 2012

Part 1 | Part 2

This is the second part of a two-part interview with German historian Professor Mario Kessler on the 2009 biography of Leon Trotsky by Robert Service. The first part was posted on Monday, May 21. Professor Kessler is a co-signatory of a letter sent by 14 European sociologists and political scientists to the Suhrkamp Verlag publishing house raising grave reservations about its plan to bring out a German edition of Service’s book.

WSWS: Even after the Civil War, anti-Semitic sentiments and prejudice still existed in the Soviet Union in certain layers…

Professor Kessler

Mario Kessler: Here too, more concrete details should be given than can be found in Service, especially from Trotsky’s essay “Thermidor and anti-Semitism”, which, unfortunately, remained unpublished in his lifetime.

The anti-Jewish prejudices from Tsarist times had survived revolution and civil war for the most part. How could it be otherwise? Many opponents of the revolution tried to present this event as the work of the Jews, personified by Trotsky. Since the layer of petty traders that arose under the New Economic Policy [8] included many Jews, professional jealousy and anti-Semitism often coincided. Even within the party there were prejudices against Jewish officials, most of whom became Bolsheviks only after 1917. Previously, they had mostly belonged to the socialist groups that were enemies of the party of Lenin.

In the 1920s, the Bolshevik Party initially fought anti-Semitic phenomena by a variety of means. Remarkably, it was often non-Jewish communists who distinguished themselves here: Kalinin, Bukharin, Preobrazhensky, Lunacharsky, Riutin. Of course, Jewish Bolsheviks were also involved in the fight against anti-Semitism. They published a series of enlightening and analytical writings, among which Yuri Larin’s book The Jews and anti-Semitism in the USSR (1929) stands out.

In this, Larin wrote about the spread of anti-Semitism “in the backward sections of workers bound up with the peasantry and among women”, and continued: “We often hear workers making anti-Semitic remarks who do not recognize the counterrevolutionary role of anti-Semitism. Many facts point to the presence of Komsomol (Communist youth organisation) members and party members among the anti-Semites”. [9] Trotsky also cited anti-Semitic remarks and behaviour among workers in his Problems of Everyday Life.

Anti-Semitism among workers was accompanied by anti-Semitic attitudes among a section of Russian intellectuals. This was nourished by a (groundless!) sense of inferiority towards the internationally-oriented and often educated Jews. Political activists who before the revolution had been members of the Jewish Labour Federation or the Poale Zion entered the party apparatus of the Bolsheviks in the wake of the process of radicalization and the dissolution of these two most important Jewish socialist parties. Thus, a type of Jewish “neophyte” arose, who sought to conceal his anti-Bolshevik past by an excess of loyalty to the party line.

Of course, this did not apply to all Jewish members of the party, not even to all those whose date of admission was after the October Revolution and the Civil War. However, by their prominent actions, some of these “newly converted” Jewish Bolsheviks considerably influenced the picture that non-Jewish Soviet citizens had of Jewish party functionaries.

This includes some of the administrative actions of the Jewish Section of the Communist Party, the Yevsektsiya. Its officials sabotaged the exercise of religious worship often practised by their Jewish fellow citizens, in part by ruthless means. They also denounced Hebrew as an allegedly Zionist idiom and tended to propagate the official ideology in very clumsy ways. Probably unintentionally, with their fight against “Jewish religious relics”, they weakened the basis for the livelihoods of their people, since, given the lack of a self-contained territory (apart from the Birobidzhan project), religion and ethnicity were more closely related among the Jews than other nationalities.

The role of Jews in the campaign of forced collectivization in the early 1930s, mainly the implementation of this brutal campaign by Kaganovich, a Jew, in the Ukraine, contributed greatly to the growth of rural anti-Semitism. Still, it seems to be clear that the Stalinization of the Soviet Union did contribute to the growth of anti-Semitism, and that the Stalin faction adeptly exploited anti-Jewish sentiment. But without the overt pre-revolutionary impact of anti-Semitism upon the masses, all of this would not have been possible. On the one hand, the Stalinists used anti-Semitic sentiments to their own advantage, on the other hand, they often encouraged anti-Semitism behind the scenes. They did not act against anti-Semitism in any way—something that was both necessary and possible.

The ban on emigration from the USSR after 1928 also contributed to the alienation between Jews and non-Jews. While this affected all citizens, the ending of Zionist immigration to Palestine by the Jews created a specific “emigration jam”. (As the ban was gradually interpreted less restrictively in the 1970s, there were waves of Jewish emigration, seeming once again to make the Jews more privileged than other Soviet citizens).

In the run-up to the Hitler-Stalin-pact in 1939, a number of Jews were removed from the diplomatic service, including Foreign Minister Litvinov. This seems to be related mainly to the fact that most Jewish diplomats were involved in Litvinov’s policy of collective security, and thus advocated an alliance with the West against Hitler.

But the heaviest losses Jews suffered were those caused by the closure of many cultural institutions, the dissolution of a number of organizations, and the execution of many party and state officials in the Jewish Autonomous Region of Birobidzhan in the Far East. Where had Trotsky—for Service so similar to his opponent Stalin—tolerated these things, let alone initiated them?

WSWS: The stirring up of anti-Semitism also played a role in the fight of the bureaucracy led by Stalin against Trotsky and the Left Opposition. What form did this take?

MK: From about 1926-27, the Stalin faction began to make use of anti-Semitic prejudices in the struggle for power against the rival United Opposition. As explained earlier, these prejudices stemmed from the Tsarist era and still slumbered in rural areas or in working class layers still strongly rooted in the peasantry.

At that time, Stalin, according to Trotsky, semi-publicly said that the opposition was headed by three disaffected Jews: Trotsky, Kamenev and Zinoviev. In the campaign running beneath the surface, the word “Jew” was only rarely used. But Stalin’s assertion that the opposition troika was being fought not because its members were Jews, but because they were enemies of the party, there was an implicit invocation of the constructed Russian-Jewish antagonism. At the same time, the identification of Jews with the opposition would have occurred even without any direct encouragement. Stalin and his faction took advantage of anti-Semitic sentiments, but they did not create them.

The Moscow show trials of the 1930s, however, provided a new “quality”. The terror trials were accompanied by an anti-Semitic propaganda campaign, poorly disguised as “Soviet patriotism”, against the defendants as allegedly “alien to the people”. Stalin exploited a dilemma that faced all internationalist-oriented Bolsheviks after the late 1920s: “[T]he Bolsheviks of Jewish origin were the least likely of all to idealize rural Russia in its crudity and barbarity, and drag the local farmers’ carts at a ‘snail’s pace’ behind them”, wrote Isaac Deutscher. “Not for them was the ideal of socialism in a single country.” [10]

The new Soviet patriotism did not necessarily have to have an anti-Jewish component; on the contrary, anti-Semitism was officially declared to have been overcome and the fundamental antagonism was to Nazism. But the anti-Semitic undertones of the show trials raised the temperature, as did, in a seemingly opposite way, the relatively large presence of Jews in the organs of power and repression.

WSWS: In what way could these anti-Semitic undertones be observed in the show trials? Were existing or latent anti-Semitic prejudices aroused or utilised by addressing the Jewish defendants not by their party name, but by their Jewish name?

MK: Of course. Trotsky himself pointed this out, and rightly so. “In order to strengthen their rule,” he said in an interview in January 1937 in Mexico, “the bureaucracy is not afraid to resort to even thinly veiled chauvinist, especially anti-Semitic, tendencies. For example, the last trial [of Zinoviev, Kamenev and fourteen other Bolsheviks] was carried through with the barely concealed intention of presenting the internationalists as faithless Jews who sold themselves to the Gestapo. Since 1925 and especially since 1936, a veiled, intangible anti-Semitic demagogy has gone hand in hand with symbolic actions against real pogromists. [...] The leaders employ clever means to channel the discord, which is directed against the bureaucracy, and focus it particularly on the Jews.” [11]

Given the virulent anti-Semitism that obsessed Stalin in his last years, this assessment resonates, unfortunately, far more convincingly than it could have to many contemporaries of Trotsky. Subsequent research findings by Salomon Schwarz, Zvi Gitelman and, more recently, Matthias Vetter—all authors who were or are far from Trotskyism—have confirmed Trotsky’s statements empirically. Why would Service ignore all this?

WSWS: In the first four chapters of his book, Service seeks to convince his readers that Leon Trotsky was called Leiba during his childhood and youth. Only at the age of 18, Service claims, did he decide to change his forename—a fact which, Service says, Trotsky concealed in his autobiography My Life. Service thereby seeks to prove that Trotsky is an unreliable author. In almost every paragraph, Service refers to Trotsky only by the name “Leiba,” probably to work on the reader until he believes the claim in the absence of any evidence.

MK: If Trotsky had been raised in a Yiddish-speaking environment, he could certainly have been called “Leiba”. But that was not the case. He was called by the name of Lev, and this is what he should probably be called in the German edition of the book, if one can trust the announcement by Suhrkamp on the Internet. Once more, the impression arises that whereever Trotsky can be shown in a dubious light, Service does so, even if the historical facts take a hammering.

WSWS: What is to be understood by the fact that Service revives this pattern well known from the time of Stalin’s persecution? What is the context?

MK: I see two reasons. One has to do with the atmosphere, specifically in parts of the Anglo-Saxon intelligentsia, where, according to my observation, some pertinent prejudices thrive at present. It’s about, I must say, a vulgar materialistic view of the Middle East conflict and Israel. The necessary and principled criticism of the Israeli occupation regime in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is confused—perhaps on purpose—with adventurous ideas to “boycott” and “end the Zionist project,” and this includes the Israeli left and left-liberals.

Concretely, in England a few years ago the linguist Gideon Toury, whose father was a progressive historian who had been banished by the Nazi Reich, was thrown off the advisory board of a scientific journal, not at all because of his political stance, but simply due to the fact that he is Israeli. As far as I could follow, British “left and liberal public opinion” did not see it necessary to exercise solidarity with Toury or distance themselves from the editors of the magazine, in contrast to the National Student Association and the American philosopher Judith Butler. [12]

Is this the policy of “Solidarity with Palestine”—calling for an indiscriminate boycott of Israeli academics, no matter what their political positions? Is that not a blanket condemnation of Israelis? How far removed is such an attitude from anti-Semitic sentiment? Don’t such sentiments at least prepare the ground? Is this the way to anti-Semitism in Enlightenment garb?

I’m not going too far when I fear that a “dose” of mockery of Trotsky, the revolutionary, theorist, and Jew, fits very well in an atmosphere in which former “salon lefts” have abandoned everything they once learned about class analysis to foster old and new prejudices—whether these come in the guise of a false “anti-Trotskyism” or a genuine, though measured, anti-Semitism.

The second, more general reason is that in the whole world, right-wing circles, but also reactionaries, liberal sections of the capitalist elites and their intellectual phrasemongers are gripped by a great fear of a renaissance of socialist ideas. To counteract it, every socialist alternative to Stalin must be burdened with the stigma of violence and terror. What could be more convenient than to present Trotsky—the wisest and most courageous opponent of Stalin, whose writings still give cause to reflect on socialism—as being, in principle, barely distinguishable from Stalin?

WSWS: Thank you for your time.


8. The New Economic Policy (NEP) was introduced in the Soviet Union in 1921 following the end of the civil war.

9. Ju. O. Larin, Evrei i antisemitizm v SSSR, Moskau/Leningrad, 1929, p. 239

10. Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky 1921-1929, New York and London, 1959, p. 259

11. The passage can be found in German in the book by John Bunzl, Klassenkampf in der Diaspora. Zur Geschichte der jüdischen Arbeiterbewegung, Vienna, 1975, p. 150.

12. Regarding the position of the World Socialist Web Site in the case of Gideon Toury, see: “Against the boycott of Israeli academics,” statement by the World Socialist Web Site, 12 July, 2002; “A letter on the boycott of Israeli academics and an answer by David North and Bill Vann,” 17 July, 2002; and “WSWS replies to letters on boycott of Israeli academics,” 30 July, 2002