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The Jews and the Revolution

In response to:

1917 from the June 15, 1967 issue

To the Editors:

I have read with dismay Mr. Walter Laqueur’s review of Dr. G. Katkov’s history of the Russian revolution of 1917 in your issue of June 15. I have admired much of Mr. Laqueur’s writing in the past. But this review can only be described as tendentious, biased, and misleading. In particular, it betrays complete lack of acquaintance with much of the scholarly work on which Dr. Katkov has drawn—and in particular of the works of the late S.P. Melgunov. It would take a letter as long as the review to expose all Mr. Laqueur’s deficiencies. Let me therefore take one example—his reference to Dr. Katkov’s treatment of the role of the Jews in the revolution.

He writes as follows: “What justification is there to suggest that the Russian Jews helped to foment revolution? None.” The only purpose of this rhetorical question can be to suggest to the unwary reader that Dr. Katkov blames the Jews for the revolution—in company with the Nazi, Fascist, and other reactionary pamphleteers of anti-communism, for whom this was a normal cliche. Now it so happens that Dr. Katkov devotes a whole (and excellent) chapter to the Jews in Russia on the eve of the revolution—Chapter 4. The second sentence reads as follows: “There is, we believe, no case for treating the part of Russian Jewry in the [revolution of 1917] as a uniformly revolutionizing factor.” The first section, on the historical background, is a forthright condemnation of the policy of anti-Semitism pursued by the pre-revolutionary regime. It is one of the fairest statements of the position which I have read—giving credit to those members of the Tsar’s administration who tried in vain to halt the anti-Jewish policy; drawing attention to the bond that was cemented between the Jewish intelligentsia and the Russian liberal intelligentsia; and showing the extent to which Jewish Marxist social democracy diverged from Bolshevism. The next section, on the Jews and the War, points out that the upsurge of loyalty and patriotism at the beginning of the war was no different among the Jews from the rest of the inhabitants of the Empire; and “that there was no indication of any seditious movement among the Jews during the mobilization.” The rest of the section is devoted to detailed criticism of the folly, inhumanity, and injustice of the government in ordering mass deportations of Jews from large areas adjoining the front in the spring and summer of 1915 on suspicion of disloyalty. (This is, so far as I know, the only fully documented account available in English of this lamentable episode.) “The Jew’s bitterness and resentment” at this injustice, writes Dr. Katkov, “led—as the government clearly realized—to an increase of revolutionary feeling. But it is quite certain that, however strong these feelings, they could not have had a direct bearing on the course of revolutionary events of 1917. The Jewish refugees were far too deprived and alienated a body to exert any political influence.” It does, of course, explain, as Dr. Katkov points out, why “the Jewish intelligentsia and semi-intelligentsia greeted the revolution” and why a large number of Jews offered their services to the Soviet regime. The chapter concludes with some reflections on the reasons for later Communist anti-Semitism. The Communists, he says, “have never shown much confidence in the political allegiance of the Jews, which originated not in any affinity with Bolshevism, but in an instinct of national self-preservation for which Communist ideology shows neither interest nor sympathy.”

It is difficult to see why, having once read this chapter, Mr. Laqueur should have permitted himself to indulge in the smear which I quoted at the outset of this letter. To those who are familiar with Dr. Katkov’s monumental and outstanding work, a review of this kind will reflect more on the author of the review than on the author of the book. But I fear that a few more reviews of the kind of books of the caliber and importance of Russia, 1917 will do irreparable harm to the deservedly high reputation of your journal.

P.S. Since writing this letter I have been informed that the paragraph I have quoted from Mr. Laqueur’s review was erroneously printed and should read: “What justification is there to deal in this context with Russian Jews as fomenting revolution? None….” This version contains the same unfair innuendo as the one originally published and is, if anything, more misleading on the contents of Chapter 4 of Dr. Katkov’s book. I therefore see no reason for altering my letter.

Leonard Schapiro

London School of Economics

Walter Laqueur replies:

The substance of Mr. Schapiro’s letter deals with one sentence in my review which I did not write—and it defends Dr. Katkov against an imaginary innuendo. I did not write: “what justification is there to suggest that the Russian Jews helped to foment revolution? None ..” There is every reason to suggest this—their part in the Russian revolutionary movement is common knowledge. What I did say (a correction by the editor was published in a recent issue of The New York Review) is that there is no justification in this context, namely in a study on the origins of the February Revolution, just as it does not make sense to put undue stress on the part of the Bolsheviks (or the German agents).

Dr. Katkov says himself in his book that Jews were not a “uniformly revolutionary factor” and that they did not play an outstanding role in the preparation of the February Revolution. If so, why devote a special section to “The Jews and the Revolution”—and not to the revolutionary activities of other national minorities which were politically at least as important? Why the heavy emphasis on Parvus’s German agents if there is no conclusive evidence that their activities had a decisive impact on the February Revolution?

This was the point I made—I apologize for having to make it all over again. To say the obvious cannot possibly be misconstrued as an innuendo.

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