Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Vanished Ideology: Jewish Communism 1917-1956    

Henry Srebrnik,  [Toronto] Jewish Tribune

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 20th 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 antisemitic 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 antisemitism. 

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 World War II, 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 World War II 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 towards 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 Labour 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. 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 antisemitic repression was for most of its members the last straw.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Soviet-Style Disproportion

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

In his State of the Union speech last month, Barack Obama warned that America is becoming “a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by.”

The United States has gone from being a comparatively egalitarian society to one of the most unequal democracies in the world. The richest fifth of the population controls about 85 per cent of the country’s wealth.

Income inequality stands at its highest rate since the Great Depression. Chief executives now make roughly 200 to 300 times as much as their average employees’ salary.

The incomes of most Americans began to flatten or decline after 1980 -- they now enjoy less economic mobility than their counterparts in Canada and much of Western Europe.

The economic meltdown since 2007 has created further damage, asserts the well-regarded Columbia University economist Joseph Stiglitz. “Unemployed young people are alienated. It will be harder and harder to get some large proportion of them onto a productive track. They will be scarred for life by what is happening today,” he wrote last December in a Vanity Fair article.

But the problem is not simply that a small number of people are very rich or pay less than their fair share of taxes. It also lies in the way many of them got rich.

They are all too often bankers, hedge fund managers, and Wall Street traders who manipulate immense sums of money for their own benefit, and give themselves multi-million dollar bonuses – regardless of whether their activities actually benefit the economy as a whole.

Very often it’s actually the reverse, as companies are downsized, manufacturing jobs outsourced to other countries, workers laid off, and homes foreclosed.

Yet financiers and corporate leaders have managed to grab more and more of the country’s income for themselves -- even when their corporation’s performance has been disappointing.

These are not the “captains of industry” of yesteryear.

The political class has also done well for itself. Roughly 11 per cent of members of Congress have a net worth of more than $9 million, according to an analysis of 2010 financial disclosures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. That puts these politicians in the top one per cent of Americans in terms of wealth.

Has America developed a Soviet-style “nomenklatura,” an elite that appropriates a disproportionate share of the nation’s wealth, by virtue of its position in society? After all, many of these people don’t “make” (as in produce) anything, they just make money.

In the Soviet Union, while the economy stagnated, the Communist party elite enjoyed a standard of living far greater than that of ordinary Russians. The system provided them with ample high quality goods, while those less privileged might wait months or years for basic necessities.

And when the Soviet command economy finally collapsed, and people could buy state-owned industries and property, it was these privileged Communist apparatchiks, with strong connections to Soviet power structures and access to the monetary funds, who snapped them up at bargain-basement prices, becoming a class of ultra-rich oligarchs.

Is America, with its growing gap between the privileged few and a declining middle and working class, beginning to resemble the Soviet Union after the 1970s?