Jews and the Left

A Review of “Revolutionary Yiddishland: A History of Jewish Radicalism” — PART 3

Go to Part 1.
Go to Part 2.

The psychological impact of the Hitler Stalin pact

Radical Jewish militants were deeply traumatized by the pact between Hitler and Stalin just prior to the start of the World War II. The dilemma facing Jewish communists, the contradiction between their “visceral anti-fascism” and what was now presented to them as an imperative of realpolitik for the USSR, repeatedly cropped up in testimony of those interviewed for Revolutionary Yiddishland. One of these, Louis Gronowski, recalled:

I remember my disarray, the inner conflict. This pact was repugnant to me, it went against my sentiments, against everything I had maintained until then in my statements and writings. For all those years, we had presented Hitlerite Germany as the enemy of humanity and progress, and above all, the enemy of the Jewish people and the Soviet Union. And now the Soviet Union signed a pact with its sworn enemy, permitting the invasion of Poland and even taking part in its partition. It was the collapse of the whole argument forged over these long years. But I was a responsible Communist cadre, and my duty was to overcome my disgust.[i]        

For many radical Jews, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 provided a sense of “relief that was paradoxical but none the less immense. They had finally found their political compass again, recovered their footing; in short, they would be able to launch all their forces into the struggle against the Nazis without fear of sinning against the ‘line.’”[ii]

In late 1941, with the outcome of the battle for Moscow uncertain, Stalin, contemplating the possibility of defeat, acted decisively to ensure the field was not left open for the former Trotskyist faction. He ordered the execution of two historical leaders of the Bund, Victor Adler and Henryk Ehrlich, just after Soviet officials had offered them the presidency of the World Jewish Congress. For Stalin, “all the militants of the Bund and other Polish Jewish socialist parties who were refugees in the USSR were considered a priori political adversaries — particularly when they refused to adopt Soviet nationality — and treated accordingly.”[iii]  Read more

A Review of “Revolutionary Yiddishland: A History of Jewish Radicalism” — PART 2

Cover of the original 1983 French edition of Revolutionary Yiddishland

Go to Part 1.

The Pale of Settlement

The Revolutionary Yiddishland of the book’s title refers to the former Pale of Settlement which was comprised of twenty-six governorships in Eastern Europe where Jews were allowed to live, but only in cities and towns. Out of the eleven million Jews in the world in the early twentieth century, Russia held more than five million, and of these, four and a half million resided in the cities and towns of the Pale. For the authors, this “Yiddishland” was not just a geographical territory, but a “social and cultural space, a linguistic and religious world.”[i] According to historian John Klier, the much-maligned Pale of Settlement was the only response the tsarist authorities could come up with when faced with how to deal with the “fanaticism of ultra-Orthodox Jewry” which was “unassimilable to official purposes.”

The social hierarchy of Jews in the Pale was, according to Brossat and Klingberg, made up of a wealthy financial bourgeoisie, a middling bourgeoisie which was “intellectual and commercial,” and “an immense Jewish proletariat.”[ii] The use of the term “proletariat” to describe poorer Jews in the Pale is questionable given that they typically operated as petty traders rather than industrial employees. Jewish peddlers were notorious throughout the Pale as smugglers of contraband (as referenced in Gogol’s Dead Souls). This large number of poorer Jews was the direct result of the Jewish population explosion in Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century when their numbers grew from about 1.5 million at the beginning of the century to almost eight million by 1913.

This Jewish “proletariat,” a hotbed of radicalism characterized by “powerful organization,” played a “decisive part” in the “strikes and insurrections that broke out right across the Pale in the course of the 1905 Revolution.” Regarding revolutionary agitators at this time, Tsar Nicholas II claimed that “nine-tenths of the troublemakers are Jews” who also dominated the newspapers where “some Jew or another sits … making it his business to stir up passions of people against each other.”[iii]

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw millions of these poorer Jews migrate to destinations as diverse as North and South America, France, South Africa, Australia and Palestine. The ideological zealotry of these Jewish migrants directly influenced American immigration policy around this time, with Muller noting:

The image of the Jew as Communist played an often overlooked role in the history not only of Jews in America, but of the millions of Jews in Eastern Europe who would have liked to emigrate to the United States after World War I, but who were prevented from doing so by the immigration restrictions enacted in the early 1920s, culminating in the Reed-Johnson Act of 1924. For those restrictions were motivated in part by the identification of Jews with political radicalism.’[iv]

The prominent Jewish intellectual and writer Chaim Bermant observed that “To many minds, at the beginning of this [twentieth] century, the very words ‘radical’ and ‘Jew’ were almost one, and many a left-wing thinker or politician was taken to be Jewish through the very fact of his radicalism.”[v] Read more

A Review of “Revolutionary Yiddishland: A History of Jewish Radicalism,” Part 1 of 3

Introduction

Alain Brossat and Sylvie Klingberg’s Revolutionary Yiddishland: A History of Jewish Radicalism was first published in France in 1983. A revised edition appeared in 2009 and an English translation in 2016. Intended for a mainly Jewish readership, the book is essentially an apologia for Jewish communist militants in Eastern Europe in the early to mid-twentieth century. Brossat, a Jewish lecturer in philosophy at the University of Paris, and Klingberg, an Israeli sociologist, interviewed dozens of former revolutionaries living in Israel in the early 1980s. In their testimony they recalled “the great scenes” of their lives such as “the Russian Civil War, the building of the USSR, resistance in the camps, the war in Spain, the armed struggle against Nazism, and the formation of socialist states in Eastern Europe.”[i] While each followed different paths, “the constancy of these militants’ commitment was remarkable, as was the firmness of the ideas and aspirations that underlay it.” Between the two world wars, communist militancy was “the center of gravity of their lives.”[ii]

While communism in Europe in the early- to mid-twentieth century was characterized by economic dysfunction, systematic oppression, summary executions, and the elimination of entire ethnic groups, Brossat and Klingberg wistfully recall it as a time when European Jewry “failed to achieve its hopes, its utopias, its political programs and strategies.” Instead, the messianic dreams of radical Jews were “broken on the rocks of twentieth-century European history.” A product of their ethnocentric infatuation with the “romance” of Jewish involvement in radical political movements, Revolutionary Yiddishland is Brossat and Klingberg’s hagiographic attempt to resurrect a history that is today “more than lost, being actually denied, even unpronounceable.” Read more

Lenin’s Willing Industrialist: The Saga of Armand Hammer, Part 5: Coda to a Life of Lies

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Doctor Armand Hammer made it clear that he would be remembered and that, not only would his memory be secure in immortality, but he would also exert influence over what didn’t get remembered about him. The memory of the bad things that he had done would die with him, while the good he wanted people to believe he’d done would be his legacy, even if it was largely a lie. Armand Hammer claimed that he “pursued two of the greatest goals I can imagine — world peace and a cure for cancer” (Hammer 468). These may have been his stated goals, but it’s doubtful that they were ever his real intentions.

***

The idea that Hammer wanted world peace is directly at odds with how he earned his money. War, upheaval, and revolution had provided his point of entry in the two major ventures that created his empire and helped make him one of the largest players on the geopolitical scene in the twentieth century. His friend and fellow titan-of-industry John Paul Getty reminded  Hammer of this fact in his autobiography As I See It. According to Mr. Getty, when someone cornered him at a party and made the requisite “‘tell-me-the-secret-of-making-millions’ question I furrowed my brow and said, ‘Actually, there’s nothing to it. You merely wait for a revolution in Russia’” (Hammer 150).

War had been good to Armand Hammer. Although Armand Hammer talks proudly in his autobiography of supporting the campaign to bomb Germany into submission in World War II, the good Doctor also had a blast in the aftermath of the Great War. Read more

Lenin’s Willing Industrialist: The Saga of Armand Hammer, Part 4: The Real King of Oil, and the Importance of using a Bagman

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Although the definitive biography of the Jewish billionaire Marcel Reich is called The King of Oil, the title probably belongs to industrialist Armand Hammer, for perhaps no one did as much to alter the political and economic geography of the global oil scene than he did. Others may have accumulated more wealth with oil, but few used their wealth to exert such leverage.

As in all of Armand Hammer’s endeavors, the narrative he prefers to tell of how he succeeded in gaining a foothold in the global oil scene is a self-serving fairytale that doesn’t bear close scrutiny. In Hammer, he claims that he managed to outbid the Seven Sisters oil cartel by extending an offer to King Idris to search for an oasis in Kufra, Libya. Just as Armand Hammer ostensibly wanted to feed the Russian peasants so many years before, he would now quench the thirst of an impoverished and tiny Middle Eastern nation languishing in “its medieval poverty” (Epstein 228). This story, which “has all the elements of a fairytale — a good king, a kingdom imprisoned by lack of water, and a wise man who shows the king how to lift the curse from his small kingdom — became the conventional account of how a small, inexperienced American oil company got the richest prize in Libya” (Ibid.).

His narrative of supposed “enlightened altruism” (Epstein 23) hid the fact that he had paid a “multimillion dollar bribe to a key official in the Libyan royal court” (Ibid.). In Hammer’s defense, a certain level of bribery was de rigeur when operating in oil concessions at the time. A “financial editor who specialized in the internal operations of Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, the parent company of Esso Libya” (Blumay 116), told Hammer’s PR flack that any “company involved in the Libyan auction bribes the ministry” but that what distinguished Armand Hammer’s bribe from the usual ones on offer was “the astonishing amount of money that Doctor Hammer threw around” (Ibid.). Read more

Lenin’s Willing Industrialist: The Saga of Armand Hammer, Part 3: The Faberge Fraud and Other Sleaze

Part 1
Part 2

One day while Armand Hammer was browbeating his PR man Carl Blumay by rattling off his list of accomplishments, he mentioned that in addition to being a “great industrialist” (Blumay 362) he was also a “distinguished philanthropist and art collector” (Ibid.). He capped his speech by claiming that he may, in fact end up living forever.

Art was very important to Armand Hammer, or rather being perceived as someone who was a knowledgeable collector of great art was important to the public image he was intent on constructing.

In his autobiography Hammer explains that his goal was to amass an eclectic collection of the world’s greatest artworks to share with the public who otherwise wouldn’t get to enjoy fine art. In an interview with Charlie Rose he declared that “Great works of art should not be held in the private and exclusive property of rich men. They should be shared with and enjoyed by everybody, for the education of the young and the enrichment of the lives of all humans” (Hammer 260). That his philanthropy was really an enterprise linked to everything from tax fraud to forgery should come as no surprise to those familiar with the wide chasm between Hammer the PR creation and the real Armand Hammer. He told Carl Blumay, his trusted employee of more than a quarter-century, the following when talking about what he was going to do with a particular batch of paintings: “I’m not going to sell them. … If I donate them to a museum or a school, the tax law enables me to base my deduction on the appreciated value, not on the purchase price. The more I inflate their value, the more I’ll be able to write off” (Blumay 22). Blumay’s recollection is corroborated by a Washington Post review headlined “An Exhibition of Losers by Major Masters,” by Paul Richards, who “speculated that the entire [exhibition] was an attempt by Hammer to inflate the value of the collection so that he could claim a fat tax deduction” (Blumay 173). Read more

Lenin’s Willing Industrialist: The Saga of Armand Hammer, Part 2: A Lucrative Relationship with Lenin and Stealing German Technology

Armand Hammer made his first fortune in Russia. In his autobiography, Hammer, he speaks without irony about how the Romanovs, “those once-powerful rulers…treated Russia as their playground and their treasure house” (140). It is hard to read about Hammer’s time in Russia without concluding that he is projecting, that he enjoyed the good life among the relics and treasures of liquidated royalty while the people outside of the palace where he resided (more on that later) were immiserated.

The power of the Politburo certainly seduced him, and even more was he seduced by the cult and charisma of Vladimir Lenin, whom he “knew personally” (Blumay 29), concluding that he had “never met a gentler, more compassionate man” (Ibid.). The Bolshevik Revolution had a profound impact on the entire Hammer family. When it happened on November 7, 1917, Armand was only nineteen years-old. His brother, Victor, who was four years younger, recalled it as “a dream come true” (Blumay 40). In his words, “A mere 11,000 men had seized control of one-sixth of the world! We saw…Lenin and Trotsky as gods” (Ibid.)—an entirely mainstream attitude among American Jews at the time.

It wasn’t enough for Armand Hammer to merely cultivate a relationship with Lenin, however. He had designs of modeling himself in the man’s image. His brother Victor claimed that “Armand began to harbor the notion that someday he could be just as powerful and important as Lenin. The only difference is that Armand wanted to be a lot richer” (Blumay 45).

Hammer established a relationship with Lenin and his credibility with the Communists by acting as his father’s proxy in deals between the Comintern and Russia. To “combat rampant inflation, the Russians began issuing gold-backed currency, the chervonetz. In order to obtain the mining concession for Armand, Julius agreed from Sing-Sing to put up $50,000 in gold as collateral, which was to be used to help underwrite the new currency” (Blumay 45). In return for acting as a conduit between his father and the Russians, Armand Hammer was granted his first major concession in Russia, ostensibly to sell wheat to help the starving Russians. This was in addition to acquiring an asbestos mining concession. Both Armand Hammer and the Communist government would profit from the business transaction. The Russians themselves didn’t get much out of the deal, especially those starving peasants from whom Hammer was nominally agreeing to import grain, in exchange for extracting money and asbestos. Read more