A vanished ideology

Jewish Communism: 1917-1956

Henry Srebrnik comment@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on February 10, 2012


In May, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York will host a conference on “Jews and the Left,” which will include presentations on “Jews and Communism in the Twentieth Century.”

Few people now recall how significant a role that ideology once played among a segment of the community. But it would come to an abrupt end.

On Feb. 25, 1956, Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union, delivered a four-hour speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party in which he denounced the crimes committed by Joseph Stalin and his associates.

Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaigns, which had intensified after 1948, were also finally acknowledged. The Warsaw Yiddish Communist newspaper Folkshtime in April 1956 published articles about the extent and virulence of Stalin’s anti-Semitism.

All of this came as a shock to Jewish Communists in the western countries, and the Jewish Communist movement, which had flourished since the Russian Revolution in 1917, virtually vanished.

The movement had its origins in east European traditions of political radicalism, and sought to improve the condition of working class Jews by adding ideas of Jewish renewal to Marxist Leninist ideology.

It constituted a response to the economic, political, social and cultural problems facing the mainly Yiddish speaking immigrant Jewish populations and gained a fair number of adherents and some measure of success between 1917 and 1956.

Though officially part of the larger world Communist movement, in reality the Jewish Communists developed their own specific ideology, which was infused as much by Jewish sources, including the literature of such Yiddish poets and writers as I.L. Peretz and Sholem Asch, as it was inspired by the Bolshevik revolution.

The Jewish Communist movement created its own fraternal organizations; in Canada, the United Jewish People’s Order; in the United States, the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order; in Britain, branches of the Workers’ Circle – as well as publications, schools, and camps. The Yiddish language groups, especially, were interconnected through the YKUF, the World Jewish Cultural Union.

Indeed, through YKUF, which operated mainly in Yiddish, they had access to a great variety of newspapers and theoretical and literary journals. Hence, Jewish Communists were able to communicate, disseminate information, and debate issues such as Jewish nationality and statehood independently of other Communists.

In much the same way as Zionist organizations considered themselves support groups for the building of a Jewish nation in Eretz Israel, so did the Jewish Communists propagandize on behalf of the Yiddish language Jewish Autonomous Region in Birobidzhan, in the Soviet Far East.

During the Second World War, they took their political cue from the Moscow based Jewish Anti Fascist Committee, and helped sponsor the 1943 tour of the Soviet Jewish emissaries Itzik Feffer and Shloime Mikhoels to Canada, the United States, Mexico, and Britain.

The period during and immediately following the Second World War proved to be the historical “moment” for the Jewish Communists. They had been involved in a decade of “popular front” campaigns on behalf of anti fascist struggles in Spain and elsewhere. They were in the forefront of support for the Soviet Union in its struggle against Hitler.

By 1945, most were also favourably disposed toward a Jewish state, and were instrumental in moving the world Communist movement in that direction.

This relatively short-lived but favourable conjuncture of ethnic and class forces enabled Jewish Communists in several countries to post a number of electoral and ideological victories in constituencies with significant Jewish populations. 

In the July 1945 British general election, Phil Piratin, a Communist candidate, was elected to Parliament from the predominantly Jewish constituency of Mile End, Stepney. In the Cartier riding of Montreal, Fred Rose, running for the Labor Progressive (Communist) Party, won election to the House of Commons in 1943 and 1945; two LPP candidates, including J.B. Salsberg, won seats in the 1945 Ontario provincial election.

In the United States, Leo Isacson, running on behalf of the Communist dominated American Labor Party, won election in 1948 to the House of Representatives from the largely Jewish 24th Congressional District in the Bronx, New York. And South Africa witnessed the election, in January 1949, of Sam Kahn, a leading Communist Party theoretician.

The movement was also very active in the Jewish communities of Argentina, Australia France, Mexico and Uruguay.

It remained a force in Jewish life until the mid-1950s. But it was already becoming ideologically marginalized after the establishment of the State of Israel.

The disillusionment with the Soviet Union that followed the revelations of Stalin’s crimes and anti Semitic repression was for most of its members the last straw.

Henry Srebrnik, a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island, has written three books on the Jewish Communist movement.