Stalin’s Opposition to Anti-Semitism

The accusation that Stalin was an anti-Semite is a strange one. Neither Stalin’s written texts nor his actions indicate anti-Semitism. Indeed, they indicate precisely the opposite, as I will show in a moment. So those who wish to make the accusation have to rely on hearsay – second- and third-hand snippets from passing conversations, whether from an estranged daughter or from those within and without the USSR who were not favourably disposed to Stalin.[1] And once such a position is ‘established’, it is then possible to read some of his actions and written comments in such a light. For instance, the ‘anti-cosmopolitan’ campaign of the late 1940s becomes a coded ‘anti-Semitic’ campaign. Or the ‘doctors plot’ of 1952-53 – in which leading doctors were suspected of seeking to assassinate government officials – is seen as an excuse for a widespread anti-Semitic purge and deportation,[2] halted only because of Stalin’s death (we may thank Khrushchev for this piece of speculation). However, the only way such an assumption can work is that many doctors in the Soviet Union were Jewish; therefore the attack on doctors was anti-Semitic. Equally, even more doctors were Russian, but for some strange reason, the plot is not described as anti-Russian.

Unfortunately for Stalin’s accusers, even the hearsay indicates that Stalin was opposed to the deep-rooted anti-Semitism of Russian culture.

To gain some perspective, the Soviet laws contained extremely harsh penalties for racial abuse, even in terms of common sayings. After Hitler came to power in Germany, Stalin made some observations concerning racism and fascism in his report to the seventeenth congress of the CPSU(B):

Still others think that war should be organised by a “superior race,” say, the German “race,” against an “inferior race,” primarily against the Slavs; that only such a war can provide a way out of the situation, for it is the mission of the “superior race” to render the “inferior race” fruitful and to rule over it. Let us assume that this queer theory, which is as far removed from science as the sky from the earth, let us assume that this queer theory is put into practice. What may be the result of that?

It is well known that ancient Rome looked upon the ancestors of the present-day Germans and French in the same way as the representatives of the “superior race” now look upon the Slav races. It is well known that ancient Rome treated them as an “inferior race,” as “barbarians,” destined to live in eternal subordination to the “superior race,” to “great Rome”, and, between ourselves be it said, ancient Rome had some grounds for this, which cannot be said of the representatives of the “superior race” of today. (Thunderous applause.) But what was the upshot of this? The upshot was that the non-Romans, i.e., all the “barbarians,” united against the common enemy and brought Rome down with a crash. The question arises: What guarantee is there that the claims of the representatives of the “superior race” of today will not lead to the same lamentable results? What guarantee is there that the fascist literary politicians in Berlin will be more fortunate than the old and experienced conquerors in Rome? Would it not be more correct to assume that the opposite will be the case? (Works, volume 13, p. 302).

This material sets the context for Stalin’s firm opposition to all forms of anti-Semitism. During the anti-cosmopolitan campaign of 1948-49 – which was actually anti-capitalist in the wake of the Second World War – it became the practice in some journal articles to include, where possible, the original family names in brackets after the Russian name. Sometimes, such original names were Jewish. When Stalin noticed this he commented:

Why Mal’tsev, and then Rovinskii between brackets? What’s the matter here? How long will this continue …? If a man chose a literary pseudonym for himself, it’s his right…. But apparently someone is glad to emphasise that this person has a double surname, to emphasise that he is a Jew…. Why create anti-Semitism?[3]

Indeed, to the Romanian leader, Gheorghiu-Dej, Stalin commented pointedly in 1947, ‘racism leads to fascism’.[4] At this point, we face an extraordinary contradiction: those who would accuse Stalin of anti-Semitism must dismiss his deep antipathy to fascism and deploy the reductio ad Hitlerum. If one assumes, even subconsciously, that Hitler and Stalin were of the same ilk, then it follows that Stalin too must be an anti-Semite. Apart from the sheer oxymoron of an anti-fascist fascist, this assertion seems very much like the speculative thought bubble that becomes ‘true’ through a thousand repetitions.[5]

I prefer to follow a rather conventional approach, instead of relying on hearsay, gossip and speculation. That approach is to pay attention to his written statements and actions. These are rather telling. Already in ‘Marxism and the National Question’ (1913), in which Stalin deals extensively with the Jews and the Bund (The General Jewish Workers’ Union of Lithuania, Poland, and Russia), he points out that dispersed minorities such as the Jews would be given the full range of protections, in terms of language, education, culture and freedom of conscience, within a socialist state. This would become his standard position, reiterated time and again and contrasted with the tsarist autocracy’s fostering of pogroms.[6] It was also reflected in extensive programs among Jews, including the fostering – not without problems and failures – of Yiddish, Jewish institutions and the significant presence of Jews at all levels of government.[7]

From time to time, Stalin had to deal with outbursts of anti-Semitism that still ran deep in Russian culture (thanks to the residual influence of tsarist autocracy). For example, in 1927 he explicitly mentions that any traces of anti-Semitism, even among workers and in the party is an ‘evil’ that ‘must be combated, comrades, with all ruthlessness’.[8] And in 1931, in response to a question from the Jewish News Agency in the United States, he describes anti-Semitism as an ‘an extreme form of racial chauvinism’ that is a convenient tool used by exploiters to divert workers from the struggle with capitalism. Communists, therefore, ‘cannot but be irreconcilable, sworn enemies of anti-semitism’. Indeed, in the U.S.S.R. ‘anti-semitism is punishable with the utmost severity of the law as a phenomenon deeply hostile to the Soviet system’. Active ‘anti-semites are liable to the death penalty’.[9]

This was no empty boast, as those who accuse Stalin of anti-semitism seem to assume. It is worth noting that article 123 of the 1936 Constitution ensured that this position was law.[10] Active anti-Semitism, even racial slurs, were severely punished. It may be surprising to some, but one of the key tasks of the NKVD (precursor to the KGB) was to counteract waves of residual anti-Semitism.[11] Yes, one of the jobs of the infamous secret police of the USSR was to root out anti-Semitism.

Further, the ‘affirmative action’ program of the Soviet Union,[12] enacted in Stalin’s capacity as Commissar for Nationality Affairs (1917-24), was explicitly a program in which territories of identifiable ethnic minorities were established, with their own languages and forms of education, the fostering of literature and cultural expression, and local forms of governance. As for dispersed minorities, even within such regions, they were provided with a stiff framework of protections, including strong penalties for any form of racial denigration and abuse. Already in 1913 Stalin had prefigured such an approach, specifying among others ‘the Jews in Poland, the Letts in Lithuania, the Russians in the Caucasus, the Poles in the Ukraine, and so on’.[13] They too – in a program of indigenization (korenizatsiia)[14] – should be able to use their own languages, operate their own schools, law-courts and soviets, and have freedom of conscience in matters relating to religion. Indeed, by the mid-1930s the Jews too were identified as a ‘nation’ with territory, having the Jewish Autonomous district in Birobidzhan.[15] This importance of this move (part of Crimea had also been proposed) is rarely recognised. It eventually failed, but it was the first move towards Jewish territory in the modern era.[16]

A final question: what about the attacks on Judaism as a religion? In 1913, Stalin wrote of the ‘petrified religious rites and fading psychological relics’[17] fostered by pockets of the ‘clerical-reactionary Jewish community’.[18] Is this anti-Semitic? No, it is anti-religious. Judaism too was subject anti-religious campaigns, which had the result not so much of divorcing Jews from their religious ‘roots’ but of producing a profound transformation in Jewish institutions and culture, so much so that one can speak of a ‘sovietisation’ of Jewish culture that produced Jews who were not religious but proud of contributions to Soviet society.[19]

What are we to make of all this? Do the hearsay and implicit assumptions speak the truth, or do Stalin’s words and actions speak the truth? I prefer the latter. But if we are to give some credence to the hearsay, then it may indicate a profoundly personal struggle for a Georgian, who was brought up with an ingrained anti-Semitism, to root it out in the name of socialism.

[1] For useful collections of such hearsay, see Erik Van Ree, The Political Thought of Joseph Stalin: A Study in Twentieth-Century Revolutionary Patriotism  (London: Routledge Curzon, 2002), 201-7; Erik Van Ree, “Heroes and Merchants: Stalin’s Understanding of National Character,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 8, no. 1 (2007).

[2] Jonathan Brent and Vladimir P. Naumov, Stalin’s Last Crime: The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953  (New York: HarperCollins, 2003); Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar  (London: Phoenix, 2003), 626-39.

[3] Van Ree, The Political Thought of Joseph Stalin: A Study in Twentieth-Century Revolutionary Patriotism, 205.

[4] Van Ree, The Political Thought of Joseph Stalin: A Study in Twentieth-Century Revolutionary Patriotism, 205.

[5] As a small sample, see Benjamin Pinkus, The Jews of the Soviet Union: a History of a National Minority  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 138-45; Vojtech Mastny, The Cold War and Soviet Insecurity: The Stalin Years, vol. Oxford University Press (Oxford, 1996), 157-58, 162; Bernard Lewis, Semites and Anti-Semites: An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice  (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999), 33-38; Philip Boobyer, The Stalin Era  (London: Routledge, 2000), 78; Konstantin Azadovskii and Boris Egorov, “From Anti-Westernism to Anti-Semitism: Stalin and the Impact of the ‘Anti-Cosmopolitan’ Campaigns of Soviet Culture,” Journal of Cold War Studies 4, no. 1 (2002); Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, 310-12; Simon Sebag Montefiore, Young Stalin  (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2007), 264; Van Ree, “Heroes and Merchants: Stalin’s Understanding of National Character,” 45; Paul R. Gregory, Terror By Quota: State Security from Lenin to Stalin (An Archival Study)  (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 53, 265.

[6] I. V. Stalin, “The Russian Social-Democratic Party and Its Immediate Tasks,” in Works, vol. 1, 9-30 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1901 [1954]), 20-21; I. V. Stalin, “Rossiĭskaia sotsial-demokraticheskaia partiia i ee blizhaĭshie zadachi,” in Sochineniia, vol. 1, 11-32 (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel´stvo politicheskoi literatury, 1901 [1946]), 21-23; I. V. Stalin, “To the Citizens: Long Live the Red Flag!,” in Works, vol. 1, 85-89 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1905 [1954]); I. V. Stalin, “K grazhdanam. Da zdravstvuet krasnoe znamia!,” in Sochineniia, vol. 1, 84-88 (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel´stvo politicheskoi literatury, 1905 [1946]); I. V. Stalin, “Marxism and the National Question,” in Works, vol. 2, 300-81 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1913 [1953]), 319-21; I. V. Stalin, “Marksizm i natsionalʹnyĭ vopros,” in Sochineniia, vol. 2, 290-367 (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel´stvo politicheskoi literatury, 1913 [1946]), 308-10; I. V. Stalin, “Abolition of National Disabilities,” in Works, vol. 3, 17-21 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1917 [1953]), 17; I. V. Stalin, “Ob otmene natsionalʹnykh ogranicheniĭ,” in Sochineniia, vol. 3, 16-19 (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel´stvo politicheskoi literatury, 1917 [1946]), 16; I. V. Stalin, “The Immediate Tasks of the Party in the National Question: Theses for the Tenth Congress of the R. C. P. (B.) Endorsed by the Central Committee of the Party,” in Works, vol. 5, 16-30 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1921 [1953]), 17, 27; I. V. Stalin, “Ob ocherednykh zadachakh partii v natsionalʹnom voprose: Tezisy k Х s”ezdu RKP(b), utverzhdennye TSK partii,” in Sochineniia, vol. 5, 15-29 (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel´stvo politicheskoi literatury, 1921 [1947]), 16, 26; Stalin, “Concerning the Presentation of the National Question,” 52-53; Stalin, “K postanovke natsionalʹnogo voprosa,” 52-53.

[7] Pinkus, The Jews of the Soviet Union: a History of a National Minority, 58-71, 77-84; Anna Shternshis, Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923–1939  (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), xv-xvi.

[8] I. V. Stalin, “The Fifteenth Congress of the C.P.S.U.(B.), December 2-19, 1927,” in Works, vol. 10, 274-382 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1927 [1954]), 332; I. V. Stalin, “XV s”ezd VKP (b) 2–19 dekabria 1927 g,” in Sochineniia, vol. 10, 271-371 (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel´stvo politicheskoi literatury, 1927 [1949]), 324.

[9] I. V. Stalin, “Anti-Semitism: Reply to an Inquiry of the Jewish News Agency in the United States,” in Works, vol. 13, 30 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1931 [1954]), 30; I. V. Stalin, “Ob antisemitizme: Otvet na zapros Evreĭskogo telegrafnogo agentstva iz Аmerik,” in Sochineniia, vol. 13, 28 (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel´stvo politicheskoi literatury, 1931 [1951]), 28.

[10] I. V. Stalin, “Constitution (Fundamental Law) of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, With amendments adopted by the First, Second, Third, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Sessions of the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R., Kremlin, Moscow, December 5, 1936,” in Works, vol. 14, 199-239 (London: Red Star Press, 1936 [1978]), article 123; I. V. Stalin, “Konstitutsiia (osnovnoĭ zakon) soiuza sovetskikh sotsialisticheskikh respublik (utverzhdena postanovleniem chrezvychaĭnogo VIII s”ezda sovetov soiuza sovetskikh sotsialisticheskikh respublik ot 5 dekabria 1936 g.),” (Moscow: Garant, 1936 [2015]), stat’ia 123. This also applied to the earliest constitutions of republics, such as the RSFSR, Ukraine and Belorus. See Pinkus, The Jews of the Soviet Union: a History of a National Minority, 52-57.

[11] Pinkus, The Jews of the Soviet Union: a History of a National Minority, 84-88; Sheila Fitzpatrick, Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 169, 186-87.

[12] Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939  (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001); Terry Martin, “An Affirmative Action Empire: The Soviet Union as the Highest Form of Imperialism,” in A State of Nations: Empire and Nation-Making in the Age of Lenin and Stalin, ed. Ronald Grigor Suny and Terry Martin, 67-90 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[13] Stalin, “Marxism and the National Question,” 375-76; Stalin, “Marksizm i natsionalʹnyĭ vopros,” 362. See also the exposition of the seventh and ninth clause of the Party Program, concerning equal rights, language and self-government in I. V. Stalin, “The Social-Democratic View on the National Question,” in Works, vol. 1, 31-54 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1904 [1954]), 42-46; I. V. Stalin, “Kak ponimaet sotsial-demokratiia natsionalʹnyĭ vopros?,” in Sochineniia, vol. 1, 32-55 (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel´stvo politicheskoi literatury, 1904 [1946]), 43-47.

[14] Korenizatsiia, a term coined by the Bolsheviks, is ‘derived directly not from the stem koren- (“root”—with the meaning “rooting”) but from its adjectival form korennoi as used in the phrase korennoi narod (indigenous people)’ Martin, “An Affirmative Action Empire: The Soviet Union as the Highest Form of Imperialism,” 74.

[15] Stalin, “Constitution (Fundamental Law) of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, With amendments adopted by the First, Second, Third, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Sessions of the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R., Kremlin, Moscow, December 5, 1936,” article 22; Stalin, “Konstitutsiia (osnovnoĭ zakon) soiuza sovetskikh sotsialisticheskikh respublik (utverzhdena postanovleniem chrezvychaĭnogo VIII s”ezda sovetov soiuza sovetskikh sotsialisticheskikh respublik ot 5 dekabria 1936 g.),” stat’ia 22.

[16] For a little detail, see Pinkus, The Jews of the Soviet Union: a History of a National Minority, 71-76.

[17] Stalin, “Marxism and the National Question,” 310; Stalin, “Marksizm i natsionalʹnyĭ vopros,” 300.

[18] Stalin, “Marxism and the National Question,” 374-75; Stalin, “Marksizm i natsionalʹnyĭ vopros,” 361.

[19] Shternshis, Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923–1939, 1-43.

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Extirpating bureaucracy with a red-hot iron

The speeches from the fifteenth congress of 1927 would have to be one of Stalin’s rhetorical triumphs. Stylistically, it runs through the calm methodical style he had developed for such occasions, deploying his famous catechetics, to subtle sentences, stories, and biblical resonances. As for subject matter, the massive economic growth of the 1920s becomes clear, making even more recent Chinese growth pale by comparison. So also does the growing structural tension produced between industry and agriculture, a tension that would lead to the collectivisation drive in an effort to get agriculture to catch up to runaway industrial growth. The fifteenth congress was, after all, the (in)famous collectivisation congress. On that subject, Stalin begins to develop what Ernst Bloch would soon call the simultaneity of non-simultaneity. The congress also marks the beginning of systematic self-criticism, with some intriguing definitions as to what constitutes improper (international bourgeois press and Trotsky’s opposition) and proper criticism. In a moment, I quote from an eloquent section that attacks bureaucracy, the double curse inherited from tsarist Russia, but it is worth nothing that Stalin criticises the USSR for not doing enough to root out anti-Semitism:

We have some manifestations of anti-Semitism, not only among certain circles of the middle strata of the population, but also among a certain section of the workers, and even in some quarters in our Party. This evil must be combated, comrades, with all ruthlessness (Works, volume 10, p. 332).

Now for the storyteller, illustrating defects of bureaucracy:

I shall not dilate on those defects in our state apparatus that are glaring enough as it is. I have in mind, primarily, “Mother Red Tape.” I have at hand a heap of materials on the matter of red tape, exposing the criminal negligence of a number of judicial, administrative, insurance, co-operative and other organisations.

Here is a peasant who went to a certain insurance office twenty-one times to get some matter put right, and even then failed to get any result.

Here is another peasant, an old man of sixty-six, who walked 600 versts to get his case cleared up at an Uyezd Social Maintenance Office, and even then failed to get any result.

Here is an old peasant woman, fifty-six years old, who, in response to a summons by a people’s court, walked 500 versts and travelled over 600 versts by horse and cart, and even then failed to get justice done.

A multitude of such facts could be quoted. It is not worth while enumerating them. But this is a disgrace to us, comrades! How can such outrageous things be tolerated?

Lastly, facts about “demoting.” It appears, that in addition to workers who are promoted, there are also such as are “demoted,” who are pushed into the background by their own comrades, not because they are incapable or inefficient, but because they are conscientious and honest in their work.

Here is a worker, a tool-maker, who was promoted to a managerial post at his plant because he was a capable and incorruptible man. He worked for a couple of years, worked honestly, introduced order, put a stop to inefficiency and waste. But, working in this way, he trod on the toes of a gang of so-called “Communists,” he disturbed their peace and quiet. And what happened? This gang of “Communists” put a spoke in his wheel and thus compelled him to “demote himself,” as much as to say: “You wanted to be smarter than us, you won’t let us live and make a bit in quiet—so take a back seat, brother.”

Here is another worker, also a tool-maker, an adjuster of bolt-cutting machines, who was promoted to a managerial post at his factory. He worked zealously and honestly. But, working in this way, he disturbed somebody’s peace and quiet. And what happened? A pretext was found and they got rid of this “troublesome” comrade. How did this promoted comrade leave, what were his feelings? Like this: “In whatever post I was appointed to I tried to justify the confidence that was placed in me. But this promotion played a dirty trick on me and I shall never forget it. They threw mud at me. My wish to bring everything into the light of day remained a mere wish. Neither the works committee, nor the management, nor the Party unit would listen to me. I am finished with promotion, I would not take another managerial post even if offered my weight in gold” (Trud,81 No. 128, June 9, 1927).

But this is a disgrace to us, comrades! How can such outrageous things be tolerated?

The Partys task is, in fighting against bureaucracy and for the improvement of the state apparatus, to extirpate with a red-hot iron such outrageous things in our practical work as those I have just spoken about. (Works, volume 10, pp. 328-30).

Long Live Soviet Physical Culture, 1934 (210x320)