Yuri Slezkine`s book The Jewish Century, which appeared last year to rapturous reviews, is an intellectual tour de force, alternately muddled and brilliant, courageous and apologetic. Slezkine`s greatest accomplishment is to set the historical record straight on the importance of Jews in the Bolshevik Revolution and its aftermath. He summarizes previously available data and extends our understanding of the Jewish role in revolutionary movements before 1917 and of Soviet society thereafter. His book provides a fascinating chronicle of the Jewish rise to elite status in all areas of Soviet society—culture, the universities, professional occupations, the media, and government. Indeed, the book is also probably the best, most up-to-date account of Jewish economic and cultural pre-eminence in Europe (and America) that we have.
The once-common view that the Bolshevik Revolution was a Jewish revolution and that the Soviet Union was initially dominated by Jews has now been largely eliminated from modern academic historiography. The current view, accepted by almost all contemporary historians, is that Jews played no special role in Bolshevism and indeed, were uniquely victimized by it.
Slezkine`s book provides a bracing corrective to this current view.
Slezkine himself [email him] is a Russian immigrant of partially Jewish extraction. Arriving in America in 1983, he moved quickly into elite U.S. academic circles and is now a professor at U.C. Berkeley. This, his second book, is his first on a major theme.
While the greater part of The Jewish Century is an exposition of the Russian experience, Slezkine provides what are in effect sidebars (comparatively flimsy) recounting the Jewish experience in America and the Middle East. Together, these phenomena can in fact be seen as the three great Jewish migrations of the 20th century, since within Russia millions of Jews left the shtetl towns of the Pale of Settlement, migrating to Moscow and the other cities to man elite positions in the Soviet state.
Slezkine attempts to understand Jewish history and the rise of Jews to elite status in the 20th century by developing the thesis that the peoples of the world can be classified into two groups.
The successful peoples of the modern world, termed Mercurians, are urban, mobile, literate, articulate, and intellectually sophisticated.
The second group, termed Apollonians, is rooted to the land with traditional agrarian cultures, valuing physical strength and warrior virtues.
Since Slezkine sees Jews as the quintessential Mercurians, modernization is essentially a process of everyone becoming Jewish. Indeed, Slezkine regards both European individualism and the European nation state as imitations of pre-existing Jewish accomplishments—both deeply problematic views, in my opinion.
There are problems with the Mercurian/Apollonian distinction as well. The Gypsies whom he offers as an example of another Mercurian people, are basically the opposite of Jews: having a low-investment, low-IQ reproductive style characterized by higher fertility, earlier onset of reproduction, more unstable pair bonds, and more single parenting.
The Overseas Chinese, another proposed parallel, are indeed highly intelligent and entrepreneurial, like the Jews. But I would argue the aggressiveness of the Jews, compared to the relative political passivity of the Overseas Chinese, invalidates the comparison.
We do not read of Chinese cultural movements dominating the major local universities and media outlets, subjecting the traditional culture of Southeast Asians and anti-Chinese sentiment to radical critique —or of Chinese organizations campaigning for the removal of native cultural and religious symbols from public places.
Moreover, the vast majority of Jews in Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were hardly the modern Mercurians that Slezkine portrays.
Well into the 20th century, as Slezkine himself notes, most Eastern European Jews could not speak the languages of the non-Jews living around them. Slezkine also ignores their medieval outlook on life, their obsession with the Kabbala—the writings of Jewish mystics—their superstition and anti-rationalism, and their belief in magical remedies and exorcisms.
And these supposedly modern Mercurians had an attitude of absolute faith in the person of the tsadik, their rebbe, who was a charismatic figure seen by his followers literally as the personification of God in the world.
Slezkine devotes one line to the fact that Jewish populations in Eastern Europe had the highest rate of natural increase of any European population in the nineteenth century. The grinding poverty that this produced caused an upsurge of fundamentalist extremism that coalesced in the Hasidic movement and, later in the nineteenth century, into political radicalism and Zionism as solutions to Jewish problems.
By proposing the basically spurious Mercurian/Apollonian contrast, Slezkine obscures the plain fact that Jewish history in the period he discusses constitutes a spectacularly, arguably uniquely, successful case of what I have described as an ethnocentric group competitive strategy in action.
Slezkine conceptualizes Mercurianism as a worldview and therefore a matter of psychological choice rather than a set of psychological mechanisms, notably general intelligence and ethnocentrism. He appears to be aware of the biological reality of kinship and ethnicity, but he steadfastly pursues a cultural determinism model. As a result of this false premise, he understates the power of ethnocentrism and group competitiveness as unifying factors in Jewish history.
This competitiveness was of course notorious in Eastern Europe before the 1917 revolution. Slezkine ignores, or at least does not spell out, the extent to which Jews were willing agents of exploitative elites in traditional societies, not only in Europe, but in the Muslim world as well. Forming alliances with exploitative elites is arguably the most reliably recurrent theme observable in Jewish economic behavior over the ages.
Indeed, Slezkine shows that this pattern effectively continued in Russia after the Revolution: Jews became part of a new exploitative elite. But here boundaries between Jews and non-Jews were unusually blurred—in traditional societies, barriers between Jews and non-Jews at all social levels were always high.
Slezkine supposes that Jews and other Mercurians performed economic tasks deemed inappropriate for the natives for religious reasons. But this is only part of the story. Often these were situations where the natives were simply comparatively less ruthless in exploiting their fellows, which put them at a competitive disadvantage. This was especially the case in Eastern Europe, where conducive economic arrangements, such as tax farming, estate management, and monopolies on retail liquor distribution, lasted far longer than in the West.
Slezkine also ignores the extent to which Jewish competition may have suppressed — arguably sometimes reversed — the formation of a native middle class in Eastern Europe. He seems instead to simply assume the locals lacked the abilities required.
But the fact is that in most of Western Europe Jews were expelled in the Middle Ages. And, as a result, when modernization occurred, it was accomplished with an indigenous middle class. Perhaps the Christian taxpayers of England made a good investment in their own future when they agreed to pay King Edward I a massive tax of £116,346 in return for expelling 2000 Jews in 1290. If, as in Eastern Europe, Jews had won the economic competition in most of these professions, there might not have been a non-Jewish middle class in England.
Although in the decades immediately before the Russian Revolution Jews had already made enormous advances in social and economic status, a major contribution of Slezkine`s book is to document that Communism was, indeed, “good for the Jews.” After the Revolution, there was active elimination of any remnants of the older order and their descendants. Anti-Semitism was outlawed. Jews benefited from “antibourgeois” quotas in educational institutions and other forms of discrimination against the middle class and aristocratic elements of the old regime, which could have competed with the Jews. While all other nationalities, including Jews, were allowed and encouraged to keep their ethnic identities, the revolution maintained an anti-majoritarian attitude. (Some might argue that the parallel with post `65 Civil Rights Act America ironic!)
Beyond the issue of demonstrating that the Jews benefited from the Revolution lies the more important question of their role in implementing it. Having achieved power and elite status, did their traditional hostility to the leaders of the old regime, and to the peasantry, contribute to the peculiarly ghastly character of the early Soviet era?
On this question, Slezkine`s contribution is decisive.
Despite the important role of Jews among the Bolsheviks, most Jews were not Bolsheviks before the Revolution. However, Jews were prominent among the Bolsheviks, and once the Revolution was underway, the vast majority of Russian Jews became sympathizers and active participants.
Jews were particularly visible in the cities and as leaders in the army and in the revolutionary councils and committees. For example, there were 23 Jews among 62 Bolsheviks in the All-Russian Central Executive Committee elected at the Second Congress of Soviets in October, 1917. Jews were leaders of the movement and to a great extent they were its public face.
Their presence was particularly notable at the top levels of the Cheka and OGPU (two successive acronyms for the secret police). Here Slezkine provides statistics on Jewish overrepresentation in these organizations, especially in supervisory roles, and quotes historian Leonard Shapiro`s comment that “anyone who had the misfortune to fall into the hands of the Cheka stood a very good chance of finding himself confronted with and possibly shot by a Jewish investigator.”
During the 1930s, Slezkine reports, the secret police, now known as the NKVD, “was one of the most Jewish of all Soviet institutions”, with 42 of the 111 top officials being Jewish. At this time 12 of the 20 NKVD directorates were headed by ethnic Jews, including those in charge of State Security, Police, Labor Camps, and Resettlement (deportation).
They were, in Slezkine`s remarkable phrase, “Stalin`s willing executioners”.
Slezkine appears to take a certain pride in the drama of the role of the Jews in Russia during these years. Thus he says they were
“among the most exuberant crusaders against `bourgeois` habits during the Great Transformation; the most disciplined advocates of socialist realism during the `Great Retreat` (from revolutionary internationalism); and the most passionate prophets of faith, hope, and combat during the Great Patriotic War against the Nazis”.
Sometimes his juxtapositions between his descriptions of Jewish involvement in the horror of the early Soviet period and the life styles of the Jewish elite seem deliberately jarring. Lev Kopelev, a Jewish writer who witnessed and rationalized the Ukrainian famine in which millions died horrible deaths of starvation and disease as an “historical necessity” is quoted saying “You mustn`t give in to debilitating pity. We are the agents of historical necessity. We are fulfilling our revolutionary duty.”
On the next page, Slezkine describes the life of the largely Jewish elite in Moscow and Leningrad where they attended the theater, sent their children to the best schools, had peasant women (whose families were often the victims of mass murder) for nannies, spent weekends at pleasant dachas and vacationed at the Black Sea.
Again, Slezkine discusses the heavily Jewish NKVD and the Jewish leadership of the Great Terror of the 1930s. Then, he writes that in 1937 the prototypical Jewish State official “probably would have been living in elite housing in downtown Moscow . . . with access to special stores, a house in the country (dacha), and a live-in peasant nanny or maid”. He writes long and lovingly detailed sketches of life at the dachas of the elite—the “open verandas overlooking small gardens enclosed by picket fences…”
The reader is left on his own to recall the horrors of the Ukrainian famine, the liquidation of the Kulaks, and the Gulag.
Slezkine attempts to dodge the issue of the degree to which the horrors perpetrated by the early Soviet state were rooted in the traditional attitudes of the Jews who in fact played such an extensive role in their orchestration. He argues that the Jewish Communists were Communists, not Jews.
This does not survive factual analysis.
One might grant the possibility that the revolutionary vanguard was composed of Jews like Trotsky, apparently far more influenced by a universalist utopian vision than by their upbringing in traditional Judaism. But, even granting this, it does not necessarily follow for the millions of Jews who left the shtetl towns, migrated to the cities, and to such a large extent ran the USSR.
It strains credulity to suppose that these migrants completely and immediately threw off all remnants of the Eastern European shtetl culture—which, as Slezkine acknowledges, had a deep sense of estrangement from non-Jewish society, a fear and hatred of peasants, hostility toward the Czarist upper class, and a very negative attitude toward Christianity.
In other words, the war against what Slezkine terms “rural backwardness and religion” — major targets of the Revolution — was exactly the sort of war that traditional Jews would have supported wholeheartedly, because it was a war against everything they hated and thought of as oppressing Jews.
However, while Slezkine seems comfortable with the notion of revenge as a Jewish motive, he does not consider traditional Jewish culture itself as a possible contributor to Jewish behavior in the new Communist state.
Moreover, while it was generally true that Jewish servants of the Soviet regime had ceased being religious Jews, this did not mean they ceased having a Jewish identity. (Albert Lindeman made this point when reviewing Slezkine in The American Conservative [article not on line].)
Slezkine quotes the philosopher Vitaly Rubin speaking of his career at a top Moscow school in the 1930s where over half the students were Jewish:
“Understandably, the Jewish question did not arise there…All the Jews knew themselves to be Jews but considered everything to do with Jewishness a thing of the past…There was no active desire to renounce one`s Jewishness. The problem simply did not exist.”
In other words, in the early decades of the Soviet Union, the ruling class was so heavily a Jewish milieu, that there was no need to renounce a Jewish identity and no need to aggressively push for Jewish interests. Jews had achieved elite status.
But ethnic networking continued nonetheless. Indeed, Slezkine reports that when a leading Soviet spokesmen on anti-Semitism, Yuri Larin (Lurie), tried to explain the embarrassing fact that Jews were, as he said, “preeminent, overabundant, dominant, and so on” among the elite in the Soviet Union, he mentioned the “unusually strong sense of solidarity and a predisposition toward mutual help and support”—ethnic networking by any other name.
Obviously, “mutual help and support” required that Jews recognize each other as Jews. Jewish identity may not have been much discussed. But it operated nonetheless, even if subconsciously, in the rarified circles at the top of Soviet society.
Things changed. Slezkine shows that the apparent de-emphasis of Jewish identity by many members of the Soviet elite during the 1920s and 1930s turned out to be a poor indicator of whether or not these people identified as Jews—or would do so when Jewish and Soviet identities began to diverge in later years: when National Socialism reemphasized Jewish identity, and when Israel emerged as a magnet for Jewish sentiment and loyalty.
In the end, despite the rationalizations of many Soviet Jews on Jewish identity in the early Soviet period, it was blood that mattered.
After World War II, in a process which remains somewhat obscure, the Russian majority began taking back their country. One method was “massive affirmative action” aimed at giving greater representation to underrepresented ethnic groups. Jews became targets of suspicion because of their ethnic status. They were barred from some elite institutions, and had their opportunities for advancement limited. Overt anti-Semitism was encouraged by the more covert official variety apparent in the limits on Jewish advancement.
Under these circumstances, Slezkine says that Jews became “in many ways, the core of the antiregime intelligentsia”. Applications to leave the USSR increased dramatically after Israel`s Six-Day War of 1967 which, as in the United States and Eastern Europe, resulted in an upsurge of Jewish identification and ethnic pride. The floodgates were eventually opened by Gorbachev in the late 1980s. By 1994, 1.2 million Soviet Jews had emigrated—43% of the total. By 2002, there were only 230,000 Jews remaining in the Russian Federation, 0.16% of the population.
Nevertheless these remaining Jews remain overrepresented among the elite. Six of the seven oligarchs who emerged in control of the Soviet economy and media in the period of de-nationalization of the 1990s were Jews.
As mentioned above, Slezkine`s discussions of the Jewish experience in the Middle East and America are quite perfunctory in comparison.
Slezkine views the Jewish migration to Israel as heroic and believes the moral debt owed to Jews by Western societies justifies the most extreme expressions of Jewish racialism:
“The rhetoric of ethnic homogeneity and ethnic deportations, tabooed elsewhere in the West is a routine element of Israeli political life… no other European state can have as strong a claim on the West`s moral imagination.”
He sees the moral taboo on European ethnocentrism, the designation of Nazism as the epitome of absolute evil, and the identification of Jews as what he calls “the Chosen people of the postwar Western world” as simply the inevitable results of the events of World War II. In fact, of course, the creation and maintenance of the culture of the Holocaust and the special moral claims of Jews and Israel might be more fairly viewed the intended result of Jewish ethnic activism.
Slezkine`s caricature of American history is close to preposterous. He sees the United States as a Jewish promised land precisely because it is not defined tribally and “has no state-bearing natives”. In fact, of course, the Founding Fathers very explicitly saw themselves as Englishmen defending a specific political tradition. But (somewhat like the Soviet Union`s Jews in the early decades) they felt no need to assert the cultural and ethnic parameters of their creation; they asssumed the racial and cultural homogeneity of the Republic and perceived no threat to its control by themselves and their descendants.
And when the Founding Fathers` descendents did percieve such a threat, they reacted powerfully and decisively, with the Know-Nothing movement in the 1850s and the Immigration Restriction (and associated “Americanization” requirements) in the early 20th Century Slezkine`s acceptance of the “Proposition Nation“ myth reflects the triumph of intellectuals and propagandists, many of them Jewish, led by Horace Kallen in the 1920s. These succesfully replaced the previously standard view by which many Americans thought of themselves as members of a very successful ethnic group derived from Great Britain and with strong cultural and ethnic connections to Europe, particularly Northern Europe.
The fate of Russia in the first two decades following the Revolution prompts reflection on what might have happened in the United States had American communists and their sympathizers assumed power. Sectors of American society might perhaps have been deemed unacceptably backward and superstitious and even worthy of mass murder by the American counterparts of the Jewish elite in the Soviet Union—the ones who journeyed to Ellis Island instead of Moscow.
Those “red state” voters who have loomed so important in recent national elections would have been the enemy. The cultural and religious attitudes of “red state” America are precisely those attitudes that have been deemed changeworthy by the left, particularly by the Jewish community, which has been the driving force of the left in America throughout the 20th century.
As Joel Kotkin points out, “for generations, [American] Jews have viewed religious conservatives with a combination of fear and disdain.”
And, as Elliott Abrams had noted, the American Jewish community “clings to what is at bottom a dark vision of America, as a land permeated with anti-Semitism…”
The dark view of traditional Slavs and their culture that caused so many Eastern European shtetl Jews to become “willing executioners” in the name of international socialism is unmistakably related, however remotely, to the views of some contemporary American Jews about a majority of their fellow countrymen.
Slezkine`s main point is that the most important factor for understanding the history of the 20th century is the rise of the Jews in the West and the Middle East, and their rise and decline in Russia. I think he is absolutely right about this.
If there is any lesson to be learned, it is that Jews not only became an elite in all these areas, they became a hostile elite—hostile to the traditional people and cultures of all three areas they came to dominate.
So far, the greatest human tragedies have occurred in the Soviet Union. But the presence of Israel in the Middle East is creating obvious dangers there. And alienation remains a potent motive for the disproportionate Jewish involvement in the transformation of the U.S. into a non-European society through non-traditional immigration.
Given this record of Jews as a very successful but hostile elite, it is possible that the continued demographic and cultural dominance of Western European peoples will not be retained, either in Europe or the United States, without a decline in Jewish influence.
But the lesson of the Soviet Union (as also Spain from the 15th–17th centuries) is that Jewish influence does wane as well as wax. Unlike the attitudes of the utopian ideologies of the 20th century, there is no end to history.
Kevin MacDonald [email him] is Professor of Psychology at California State University-Long Beach. This article is adapted from a longer review [pdf] published in the Fall 2005 issue of The Occidental Quarterly.