Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 20, 2015

Was Stalin anti-Semitic? A reply to Roland Boer

Filed under: Jewish question,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 8:56 pm


One of the oddest tendencies of Marxist intellectuals today is their admiration for Australian religion professor Roland Boer who received the Isaac Deutscher Prize in 2014 for his book “In the Veil of Tears”. The jury is made up of people whose intelligence I truly respect (despite such lapses as awarding a prize to Francis Wheen for his cynical biography of Karl Marx in 1999.) Others have gotten on the bandwagon, including Paul Le Blanc. Scott McLemee is also something of a fan although it is hard to figure out whether he takes him as seriously as Le Blanc, giving the impression that he reads Boer more for amusement than edification.

Maybe the Deutscher jury and Le Blanc have never visited Boer’s blog “Stalin’s Moustache”, as McLemee has. If it is supposed to be a joke (as McLemee suggests), it is not a very good one, especially when you run into an article titled Stalin’s “Anti-Semitism. Who knows? Maybe I don’t have a sense of humor. Is writing a response to Boer like writing an angry letter to Onion.com along the lines of  “How dare you publish an article claiming that Karl Marx was a secret admirer of the Mormon Church?” (Come to think of it, that’s not so far from Boer’s particular shtick, comic or not.)

Boer starts off by dismissing those who charged Stalin with anti-Semitism as not worth being taken seriously because they are “not favourably disposed to Stalin”. Frankly, it would be quite an exercise in cognitive dissonance to find someone “favourably disposed to Stalin” who also found him anti-Semitic unless of course it was someone like the bizarre Sendero Luminoso publicist Luis Quispe who tried to score points on the original Marxism mailing list by referring to me as a Jew or a Zionist every chance he got. Except for such cretins and their counterparts on the extreme right, anti-Semitism has very little traction among people with a modicum of civilized values.

Citing an eccentric Dutch scholar named Erik Van Slee, Boer makes the case that Stalin objected to his flunkies using the original Jewish surnames of party members being targeted in the anti-cosmopolitan campaign of 1948-1949. Furthermore, since Stalin told a Romanian Stalinist leader in 1949 that “racism leads to fascism”, how could he possibly be anti-Semitic? That’s some argument, isn’t it?

Decrying racism is pretty easy. When George Bush ’41 spoke at a celebration for signing the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday into law, he told the audience “We can learn about how a great vision and a great nation began to confront and nonviolently challenge institutional racism.” That’s the same George Bush who ran Willie Horton campaign ads that suggested a vote for Dukakis would unleash violent Black criminals on an innocent and god-fearing white America.

On the question of Stalin being opposed to using his adversary’s original Jewish surname, it is notable that Boer doesn’t even take the trouble to respond to the well-documented record of his doing exactly that. At the risk of losing my credibility by quoting someone who was not “favourably disposed” to Stalin, let me direct your attention to Leon Trotsky’s “Thermidor and anti-Semitism”, written in 1937.

Trotsky notes that nobody ever referred to him as Bronstein before he became persona non grata in the USSR, nor—for that matter—did party members refer to Stalin as Dzhugashvili. By the same token, when Zinoviev and Kamenev were in a bloc with Stalin, that’s the names they were referred to in the party press. But after they were put on trial as members of Trotsky’s Left Opposition, they became Radomislyski and Rozenfeld.

Moving ahead to the anti-cosmopolitan campaign that Boer would have us believe is pure as the driven snow, it is of course difficult to establish that it was openly directed against Jews but only if you also believe that stop-and-frisk police tactics are not specifically directed against minorities.

Maybe it was just a coincidence that Literaturnaya Gazeta took aim at an “evil and decadent story written by the homeless cosmopolitan Melnikov (Mehlman)” and the “cynical and impudent activities of B. Yakovlev (Holtzmann).” (The Jewish surnames were in the original.) Or maybe it was also a coincidence that some of the USSR’s best-known sports journalists were purged because they were Jewish. Komsomolskaya Pravda wrote:

It is not surprising therefore that the anti-patriotic cosmopolitans have laid their dirty hands on sporting literature … They are vagrants without passports, suspicious characters without any ancestry who work hard to put over the customs and tastes of the foreigners on Soviet athletes … It is high time to clean out all these enemies of the Socialist fatherland…

Not long after the anti-cosmopolitan campaign was launched, a “doctor’s plot” convinced many that anti-Semitism was a problem in the USSR but not Roland Boer apparently who wrote:

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, 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.

Does Boer think that his readers will not scrutinize his claim that “even more doctors were Russian”? To some extent this is true, because the people who read his idiotic blog would believe that Stalin walked on water. This was a typical comment from one of his fans (I hope it was not Paul Le Blanc or Scott McLemee using a fake name).

Did any other world leader of comparable stature denounce anti-Semitism in such strong terms as Stalin’s reply to the US-based Jewish News Agency? Did any other world leader of comparable stature denounce anti-Semitism as not only ‘an extreme form of racial chauvinism’, but as ‘the most dangerous vestige of cannibalism’?

I had no idea that cannibalism gave birth to anti-Semitism but let’s leave that aside for purposes of remaining tethered to the planet Earth.

What’s more important is to understand that of the nine doctors arrested, six were Jewish. In other words, it is irrelevant that maybe two-thirds of Soviet doctors were not Jewish. The reason anti-Semitism was detected in the “doctor’s plot” was the ethnic composition of those arrested. That Boer can pussyfoot around this reality shows that he has really absorbed the essence of Stalin’s politics—the mastery of the big lie.

The rest of Boer’s article is an attempt to prove that anti-Semitism could not exist in the USSR because the constitution banned it. There’s no argument that this is what it said. That was some great fucking constitution even if it was not worth the paper it was written on.

Finally, something should be said about one of Stalin’s boldest initiatives on behalf of Soviet Jews—at least nominally, the creation of Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region that Stalin gave the green light to in 1932. This was not a choice made by Russian Jews but one made by Stalin for them. It was consistent with his disregard for the rights of self-determination that Lenin decided to fight from his deathbed, dubbing Stalin a “vulgar Great-Russian bully”.

This was not Stalin’s last foray into Jewish nation building. In 1944 Stalin decided that the Jews had a case for building a state over the objections of the Arabs, the Palestinians foremost among them. In doing so, he became a “friend of the Jews” at least in the eyes of their Zionist leaders. You can read about this forgotten moment of history in a September 2014 Le Monde Diplomatique article titled The Forgotten Alliance by historian Michael Réal:

The USSR supplied people willing to settle in Palestine. In 1946 the Soviets allowed more than 150,000 Polish Jews to go to the British and American occupied zones in Germany, where they entered camps for displaced people. There were few alternatives to Palestine for Jewish survivors of the Nazi camps, or those with neither home nor family at the end of the war. Moscow deliberately exacerbated this problem, putting Britain, under strong pressure from the Zionist movement and the US, in a difficult situation. The US was unwilling to take these refugees in, but feared the impact on US public opinion of newsreels showing boats of illegal immigrants en route to Palestine being turned back by British forces.

Before 1948, the USSR directly or indirectly supported secret immigration operations organised by the Jewish Agency for Israel, sending Jews from eastern Europe, especially Romania and Bulgaria (66% of the Jews who arrived in Palestine between 1946 and 1948 came from there).

After 15 May 1948 and Israel’s declaration of independence, encouraging immigration became yet more urgent. Israel’s fledgling army needed recruits — so supplying the flow of migrants meant participating in the Israeli war effort. Between 1948 and 1951 more than 300,000 Jews from eastern Europe went to Israel — half of the total influx of migration during that period.

Moscow also supported Israel in another aspect of its demographic battle: the homogenisation of its population, which led to the departure — mainly through expulsion — of over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs. The USSR absolved Israel of responsibility and blamed the British. In 1948 the Soviet Union voted against UN resolution 194 on the possible return of Palestinian refugees.

Later on, the USSR would orient to the Arab states but by then it was too late. The damage had already been done. 


  1. I have been intrigued by Roland Boer’s book series and thought it would be interesting to read. I glanced at his blog some years ago and decided it was pretty boring (most of the posts I read were about camping or biking in the Netherlands and a small number of interesting posts about old testament history. I figured the title was a joke, a kind of pun on Lenin’s Tomb. I appreciate your opening my eyes to the content of this Louis. It has certainly changed my perspective. I do have a rather weird interest in theology and mysticism, probably stemming from my MA research into the radical Reformation, but I am reassessing my plan to read Boer’s volumes after this. Have you read any of them comrade? Are they worthy (despite his reprehensible politics)? I am thinking here of the case of Losurdo too – I have read some of his books and found them enlightening, but many people tell me he is pretty much a Stalinist as well.

    Comment by Cedric B — April 20, 2015 @ 10:59 pm

  2. “the essence of Stalin’s politics—the mastery of the big lie.”

    Rather, it is you, a follower of professional anti-communists, who goes for the big lie. You present no real evidence. You rehash such “evidence” as allusion to Trotsky 1937, which is nothing but echo-chamber “argument.” You attribute every deed of the Soviet government to Stalin, an absurdity especially after World War Two when he was old and surrounded by opportunists determined to isolate him and angling to succeed him.

    Comment by Stephan E. — April 21, 2015 @ 4:45 am

  3. Hello. You said


    I think this is unfortunately wrong. Most average people seem to be heavily biased against Jewish people ( even when they never met any) . Over my 40 years teaching international students I have heard so many casual attacks on Jews I can’t even count them. Most times they don’t realize they’re saying anything wrong, they think everyone shares their views. The acts of Israel which portrays itself as the state of the Jews only amplifies this. It’s a sad state of affairs.

    Comment by Tin Shu Li — April 21, 2015 @ 6:03 am

  4. “You attribute every deed of the Soviet government to Stalin, an absurdity especially after World War Two when he was old and surrounded by opportunists determined to isolate him and angling to succeed him.”

    So let me get this straight. When the USSR voted for the creation of the state of Israel and armed the Zionists, Stalin had nothing to do with this? What a bunch of crap.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 21, 2015 @ 1:19 pm

  5. Stalin was an anti Semite and a founder of Israel? I don’t understand.

    Comment by Tin Shu Li — April 21, 2015 @ 2:02 pm

  6. Actually, support for Israel and anti-Semitism go hand in hand occasionally such as with the Christian fundamentalists who have become one of the main support bases in the USA today.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 21, 2015 @ 2:10 pm

  7. Antisemitism always confronts a choice–exterminate or expel. Much of the time it chooses the latter, though never without a quota of murder. Sometimes, a religious conversion option is also considered, as was the case historically with Spanish Catholicism, as loathsome as that is.

    This is one of the things that made the Nazi genocide so uniquely horrible in the framework of modern Western Europe: the “final solution” was not to let the Jews out of a deadly trap as long as they went away or force them to kowtow or kiss the rod, but rather to try to murder every single one on a factory model using halfbaked racial “science” rather than mere ethnic or religious bigotry as an excuse.

    This should not be taken as an excuse for more “traditional” anti-semitism.

    The fact that Stalinism initially endorsed a homeland outside the U.S.S,R.for the troublemaking “cosmopolitans” is entirely consistent with Great Russian (and Georgian) anti-semitism and is obviously of a piece with the “Birobidzhan” initiative. Indeed, even the Nazis flirted for a time with support for a Palestinian Jewish homeland.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — April 21, 2015 @ 2:42 pm

  8. “Except for such cretins and their counterparts on the extreme right, anti-Semitism has very little traction among people with a modicum of civilized values.”

    I would be interested in your definition of civilized values and roughly what % of the population held such civilized views? I am only saying this because if I am guessing correctly at your definition of people with civilized values then i suspect they wouldn’t be much concerned with anti Semitism but would generally be anti immigrant, anti Muslim and to quote the most popular and most read British newspaper, the Sun, they wouldn’t be too bothered if the next boat load from libya was blasted out of the water, killing everyone on board.

    But whatever, people who hold ‘civilized values’ are often overrated and designated quite inappropriately..

    Comment by Simon Provertier — April 21, 2015 @ 4:07 pm

  9. I’m confused still. Jews and Jewish leaders understandably wanted their own state after the holocaust. Opposing this would put one against the Jews and so anti Jewish. According to you here supporting it also made one anti Jewish though. So what position could one do to be pro Jewish?

    Comment by Tin Shu Li — April 22, 2015 @ 10:39 am

  10. Stalin supported the creation of a Jewish state because he thought it would undermine British influence in the Middle East. This article will give you more background:


    Comment by louisproyect — April 22, 2015 @ 12:16 pm

  11. To Tin Shu Li, a pro-Jewish position would be full integration into whichever nation they lived in. The separate state of Israel helped vindicate anti-Semitic views by encouraging mass emigration into another state rather than destroying the racist policies within their own state.

    Comment by Joshua — April 22, 2015 @ 4:35 pm

  12. I doubt Stalin was personally antisemitic. Marxism had freed him from such irrationality. However, with the defeat of the Lenin-Trotsky wing of the revolutionary party, he made use of antisemitism – still prevalent within the population – to advance the goals of the parasitic bureaucracy he came to embody, much in the way capitalist regimes (Nazi Germany remains the text-book case) use Jew hatred to disorient the workers movement.

    Comment by Dave — April 22, 2015 @ 6:07 pm

  13. Joshua, this means the Jewish leaders and Jews who demanded the creation of Israel were anti Jewish?

    Thanks for link Louis but seems Stalin couldn’t win. Whatever he did he’d be called anti Semite. Many reasons to hate him, I think we don’t need this. He was an opportunist above all. He did whatever would help his caste.

    Comment by Tin Shu Li — April 23, 2015 @ 1:04 am

  14. “Stalin couldn’t win …”

    Poor Stalin. But why can’t a rational or partly rational opportunist also be anti-Semitic? How does Stalin’s opportunism in e.g. using Israel as a counter to the British Great Game in Palestine (if that was his aim) free him from the accusation of anti-semitism?

    Tin Shu Li seems to be thinking something like this: Stalin was a big man (historically speaking) who had a big effect, so he must have had big ideas. These must necessarily have been both clear and consistent (rational); otherwise they would not have been effective. So Stalin, once proved a “rational” opportunist, could not also have been an “irrational” anti-Semite.

    But were the Nazis also, as effective opportunists, not truly anti-semitic–even when they flirted with the idea of creating a Jewish homeland somewhere outside Europe? Before the infamous Wannsee Conference of 1942 created the formal “Final Solution” (quite late in the lifecycle of Nazism), Adolf Eichmann (1937) negotiated with Zionists and visited Palestine. In 1940, the Nazi government promoted the well-known “Madagascar Plan” to settle European Jews in Madagascar or some other colony. These zionist (or zionoid) threads were present in the Nazi discourse long after the Kristallnacht pogroms of November 1938 effectively foreshadowed what would ultimately happen. And when it comes to the Final Solution itself, the whole thing was intensely opportunistic since it sought to weld the Germans together against looming defeat in a pact of blood over the dead bodies of an ever-more-monstrous Enemy. What could be more rational?

    Every single antisemitic act of the Nazi government can be shown to have a rational, opportunistic component, and some Nazis continued to push a variant of Zionism until almost the end–so by Tin Shu Li’s logic, the Nazis were not and a priori could not have been antisemitc. Presumably, nobody else in history ever was either.

    Case closed?

    Comment by Pete Glosser — April 23, 2015 @ 2:52 pm

  15. Tin, it’s not a matter of being “anti” when they supported a Zionist state. The history of the creation of Israel is quite complex and far too thorough to put it in a comment. The “leaders” had motivations of their own, including safety and the desire of a strong Jewish state. In fact, anti-Semitism in Europe HELPED their raison d’etre of a Zionist state. Supporting a cause doesn’t necessarily make you “pro” or “anti”. Some may just align with your own interests.

    Comment by Joshua — April 23, 2015 @ 4:31 pm

  16. Good points by Pete. Perhaps a better way of saying what I said is this: that it is unlikely Stalin believed the antisemitic propaganda himself but took advantage of the prevalence of such prejudices within the population to advance his goal of procuring for the parasitic caste in the making the best bottle of wine and a steady allotment of shoes. Of course, his actions were objectively racist and antisemitic.

    Comment by Dave — April 23, 2015 @ 5:15 pm

  17. One of the problems with the word “antisemitic” (which apparently Louis has decided he’s not going to not use after all) is that it has different meanings to different people.

    I thought I’d just note that one effective strategy that Weizmann used for securing support from the British was to appeal to their exaggerated notions of Jewish power. It seems apparent to me that a lot of antisemites have supported Zionism at various times for various reasons, but again it depends on your definition.

    Comment by godoggo — April 23, 2015 @ 8:26 pm

  18. CUFI Leader John Hagee confirms Christian Zionism is anti-Semitic


    Comment by louisproyect — April 23, 2015 @ 8:29 pm

  19. i didn’t think the Shining Path were anti semitic. maybe this one person was, but i dont think the movement is.
    Stalin was not an anti semite. his dealing with Islamic peoples was also in some ways inconsistent or based on realpolitik.ie Chechnya.

    forms of anti semitism are growing, and the fault of it is because of Zionism. I mean, what is one supposed to think if one sees the entire US Congress stand up and cheer for Netanyahu. if BHL in France goes out of his way to support the invasion of Libya etc.

    Comment by dennis — April 26, 2015 @ 3:45 pm

  20. Dennis, one is supposed to oppose Zionism, not to discriminate against Jews.

    Comment by Joshua — April 27, 2015 @ 12:10 pm

  21. So was Stalin anti-Semitic or not, I don’t have time to read all that. Just give me a yes or no answer, please? Thank-you. 🙂

    Comment by Sickle And Hammer — April 30, 2017 @ 4:45 am

  22. Reblogged this on Socialist Fight and commented:
    Really excellent stuff here for those who want to understand Zionism and the opportunist and unprincipled relationship of Stalinism to western imperialism. Well worth studying in detail and Socialist Fight will answer your qiestions in political detail.

    Comment by socialistfight — February 6, 2018 @ 10:39 pm

  23. Louis correctly notes that: “anti-Semitism has very little traction among people with a modicum of civilized values.” I’ve also noticed that red-baiting doesn’t work with a Black or Latino audience.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — August 15, 2020 @ 6:42 pm

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