Stalin and Zionism

On February 11, 1945 in Yalta president Roosevelt asked Stalin, what he thought of Zionism. The answer he got shocked the translator Charles Bolen who had read Stalin's work on "Marxism and national question": "In principle I support Zionism, but there are difficulties with solving the Jewish question. Our experiment in Birobidzan (1) failed, because the Jews prefer to live in cities".

It is a well-known fact that Stalin personally did not like Jews. He also detested the British, the Chechens and several other nationalities. He had a narrow Russian nationalist chauvinist outlook. He was very far removed from the internationalism that was characteristic of Lenin and the Bolshevik party before the party succumbed to the Stalinist degeneration. While he definitely had these traits he also liked to cosy up to different petit-bourgeois nationalist movements in different countries.

Towards the end of the 1920s he had developed a strong relationship with Chang Kai Shek's Kuomintang. In spite of this "friendship" that cosy relationship ended with the massacre of the Chinese communists in Nanking.

Later he was to push the Spanish Communists into an alliance with the so-called "progressive wing" of the Spanish bourgeoisie in the 1930s. This was to lead to the defeat of the Spanish revolution. NKVD agents (the then KGB, or Russian intelligence services) were actively involved in such manoeuvres

During the Second World War Stalin formed an alliance with the Anglo-American bourgeoisie. Part of this was an agreement that was to lead to the liquidation of the Comintern (the Communist International). In Greece it led to the open betrayal of the Greek Communists who were left to be massacred by the British forces after the war.

All these "alliances" ended in big disappoints for "comrade" Stalin and what was even worse, they led to a large number of victims among the workers in the countries where this false policy was applied. However, there are people who never learn, and Stalin was one of these. The Zionist movement thus became the next adventure that Stalin steeped himself in. In the period immediately after the Second World War the Zionists were in conflict with the British masters of Palestine and were looking around for new friends.

We must point out that Joseph Vissarionovich (Stalin) had had some contacts with the Zionists in the past. The Russian Zionist activist Dan Pines wrote in his memoirs that he had visited Stalin when the latter was Commissar for Nationalities in the mid 1920s and got his support for his Zionist activities in Russia.

This position was in total contradiction to official communist policy. It flew in the face of all those Comintern decisions and also of the policy of the Jewish section of the Comintern that had declared Zionism as a dangerously reactionary movement.

In 1920 the Second Congress of the Comintern had issued a statement on the colonial and national question, in which we can read the following: "A glaring example of the deception of the working people of oppressed nations by the united forces of imperialism of the Entente and the bourgeoisie of these nations is the Palestinian adventure that is being put forward by the Zionists (and Zionism in general, which, in claiming to establish a Jewish state in Palestine, in practice is advocating the expulsion of the Arab working people from Palestine, where the Jewish workers constitute only an insignificant minority, a role that is exploited by Britain.)" (2) But Stalin completely ignored the genuine traditions of the Bolshevik Party and the Communist International (when it was led by Lenin and Trotsky). A sympathy for Zionism was typical of the "right Bolsheviks". Another supporter of Zionism was Felix Dzerzinsky, the head of the GPU, who was also a "right Bolshevik".

However, in line with the ultra-left turn of the Stalinists in the late 1920s, when most of Bolshevik oppositionist leaders were in prison, this sympathy towards Zionism was suddenly suppressed and it was outlawed in Soviet Russia. In spite of this, criticism of Zionism was never strong and systematic in the 1930s. In fact not all relations were bad between Zionism and Stalinism.

However, after having had their hopes raised about the "positive" aspects of Zionism, by the late 1920s many left wing Zionists had been disappointed by their experiences in Palestine and they returned to the USSR. The majority of these people were later executed in 1937.

Others understood that there was no way back from the "Zionist paradise". In the late 1930s the official position on Zionism in the USSR also began to change to a more favourable one. In the huge official Soviet Encyclopedia published in those times we find a positive attitude towards Zionism. It said that Jewish migration to Palestine had become a "progressive factor" because many of the immigrants stood on the left and were also workers and these could be used against the pro-British Arab sheikhs!

At the beginning of 1947 a very strange coalition had come into being over the Palestinian question – the USA, the USSR and the Zionists. They all supported the partition of Palestine. Of course each one of these had their own specific interests. The USA wanted to push out the old British colonial lion and replace him in the oil rich and strategically important Middle East. As for Stalin, he wanted to use the Jews in Palestine against British imperialism, and to establish a point of support for the Soviet bureaucracy in the Middle East. We also know what Ben-Gurion and his gang wanted – a "Great Israel" on both sides of the Jordan or at least encompassing the Sinai peninsula.

We could ask ourselves the question as to whether Stalin had any inkling of a Marxist understanding when he supported Zionism? The answer is, of course, that he did not. His approach was all reduced to playing the old game between Russian and British imperialism for control of this region. Stalin didn't support any drastic social changes in Palestine and thus a bloody conflict to divide Palestine was absolutely predictable.

The only solution would have been a united Socialist Palestine for both Jews and Arabs as part of a Socialist Federation of the Middle East, but this was a closed book for Stalin. Even worse than this was the fact that the Soviet authorities gave a "green light" for supplying Israel with weapons. Through their puppet regime in Czechoslovakia arms were indeed sent to Israel, and at the same time "communists" were encouraged to serve in the Israeli armed forces, those same forces that committed terrible crimes against the Arabs workers and peasants. The "Great Leader" of course had hoped to became a patron of the future Jewish state, and to achieve a so-called "Finlandisation" and thus to make Israel a capitalist ally of the Soviet Union.

The most ardent exponent of this line was Vacheslav Molotov, the man that was in charge of the Soviet foreign office between 1939 and 1949. He was the one who put his signature to the infamous Stalin-Hitler pact together with Ribbentrop in 1939. He was absolutely convinced that the USSR should abandon its policy of supporting the Arab communists because he regarded them as being powerless and that it should shift its support to the Zionists as he believed these were in a position to cut out a large chunk from the British Empire. Experts from the Middle East subdivision of the international department of the Central Committee of the All-Russian Communist Party had criticised this perspective, but nobody at the top of the Soviet regime would listen to them, and the head of this subdivision, Doctor of History, Peter Vladimirovich Milogradov, who had criticised Molotov's position, was consequently replaced.

But Stalin and Molotov had made a serious miscalculation. The Israeli bourgeoisie and the bureaucracy of the emerging Israeli state had always maintained deep economic and political links with the West and in particular with the USA. Golda Meir said at that time: "We cannot buy Soviet weapons with money that we have received from American Jews". Thus the Israeli ruling class cynically exploited Soviet help to their own advantage when they were setting up their state, but after the so-called "War of Independence" was over they began to develop closer relations with the West.

This end to the "friendship" between the USSR and the Zionists was easily predictable. The academic Ivan Michailovich Maisky, the soviet ambassador in London between 1934 and 1943 visited Palestine in 1943 on his way home. He met the Zionist leaders, and from the results of this meeting he drafted a report for the Soviet Foreign Minister, Molotov, in which he wrote the following:

"They are a very nice people, they have all completed their education in Russian colleges or gymnasiums. We spoke about classical literature and the Russian language, but they think in English with an American accent". This is an eloquent description of the real position of the Zionist leadership.

The failure of Soviet policy in the Middle East had become abundantly clear. Israel was lost to the Soviet sphere of influence. But as a consequence of this disastrous policy of Stalin many of the Communist parties in the Arabs countries disintegrated and lost their influence.

In Damascus mobs looted the offices of the local Communist Party after Gromyko had made his speech in the United Nations in favour of the partition of Palestine. The Communist Party of Palestine had both Arab and Jewish members and had always supported the position of one state for two peoples. But because it was linked to the Soviet Union it also suffered a large fall in support. Traditionally it had had close contacts with the Communist parties and movements in the neighbouring Arab countries, such as Palestine, Egypt and the Lebanon, but these were now broken.

Now Stalin did a complete 180-degree turn as he had done many times in the past. In 1933 Stalin had shifted his position from an extremely ultra-left course, in which even the Socialist parties were regarded as enemies, (or "social- fascists"), to an alliance with the so-called "liberal bourgeoisie" (the "Popular Front") .Thus towards the end of the 1940s Stalin moved from supporting Jewish nationalism to an outright anti-Semitic position. This manoeuvre also fitted well with his policy of the "creeping Thermidor" which included the restoration of some reactionary customs that harked back to Tsarist Russia.

Thus anti-Semitic hysteria was whipped up right until the death of Stalin in 1953. It was to be his last present to the Zionists. As result of this Stalinist policy of discrimination and oppression thousands of Russian Jews were pushed into the hands of the Jewish nationalists, the Zionists. Thus rather than weakening Zionism, Stalin's policy enormously strengthened it and provided it with more recruits.

It is curious to note today in Russia how some old hard-line Stalinists regard Stalin as "a great fighter against world Zionism". This had its mirror image even in Israel itself, among some on the left. In some kibbutzim until the beginning of the 1980s it was still possible to find pictures of Stalin hanging on the walls! For some he was regarded as the man that helped realize the Zionist dream. In spite of all these myths, however, the genuine Marxists in Israel today know the real truth.

(May 2003)

(1) After the 1917 revolution Lenin and the Bolsheviks granted those Jews who wished to live in their own autonomous region, the area known as Birobidzan. This was a gesture on the part of the Bolsheviks to demonstrate that the new workers' state was putting an end to all forms of discrimination. The vast majority of Jews did not take up the offer because they felt that their rights were  now guaranteed in post revolutionary Russia. Unfortunately this was not to be the case under the later Stalinist regime.

(2) Translated from the Russian edition of The Communist International, 1919-1943. Vol. 1 Leningrad., 1960. P. 144.