Antisemitism and Stalinist Realism
16 November 2023
An obsession with identities and boundaries is toxic to open Marxism, and we need to grasp that in order to combat antisemitism.
Stalinist realism, which turns Marxism into a bizarre worldview, is no alternative to capitalism, but it is, instead, an ideological force inside the left that complements “capitalist realism” (Fisher, 2009). While capitalist realism tells us that there is no alternative to this wretched political-economic system, stalinist realism tells us that the only alternative is a fixed worldview obsessed with identities and boundaries (Parker, 2022). Antisemitism is one of its manifestations, also then giving further ammunition to those on the right who have often claimed that critique of capitalism is itself antisemitic. We need to examine stalinist realism in relation to antisemitism in more detail in order to understand what it is we are up against in the struggle to build an authentic anti-capitalist movement grounded in an open inclusive form of Marxism.
The origins of stalinist realism, as the phrase indicates, lie in the bureaucratic apparatus in the Soviet Union headed by Joseph Stalin after 1924. That apparatus turned away from the internationalist ethos of the new soviet state. The communist parties around the world in the Third International were turned into diplomatic tools of the regime, in the process relaying a nationalist as well as bureaucratic ethos into left politics. Defence of the revolution was then interpreted by communists in these Stalinist parties and by fellow travellers as defence of the Soviet Union, which itself closed in on itself with a renewed emphasis carried forward from Tsarist pre-1917 times on the family and Russian ethnic identity, with dire consequences for Jews inside Russia and its territories. With the revival of Great Russian nationalism came a revival of antisemitism, culminating in the so-called “doctor’s plot” shortly before Stalin died.
The years of Stalinist rule saw national “minorities” enclosed in specific geographical areas, humoured for their quaint cultural traditions and increasingly strictly defined and delimited. Anthropological and psychological research during this time operated on the assumption of a hierarchy of development in which “backward” nationalities were derogated. In some cases, with the fate of the Crimean Tatars only one example, that entailed the transporting and relocating of entire populations. In the case of the Jews, there were attempts to settle them far from the metropolitan centres, to Birobidzhan near the border with China. This “Jewish Autonomous Oblast” had Yiddish as its official language, and antisemitism elsewhere in the Soviet Union increased alongside this segregation.
There was a shift in tactics on the part of the Soviet bureaucracy after the Second World War and when the full extent of the Holocaust was becoming visible, but not of strategy. When Stalin endorsed the partition of Palestine in November 1947 into a Jewish state and Arab territory, the policy shift became evident. Then, in May 1948, the Soviet Union was one of the first states to recognise the newly-founded state of Israel after having given the go-ahead to the Czechoslovak regime, an obedient partner in the Soviet bloc, to supply weaponry to the Zionist paramilitary organisation Haganah. These arms shipments implicated the Soviet Union in the Nakba and ethnic cleansing by the Israeli state. In this way, Stalin could continue a policy of collusion and compromise with imperialist powers that would guarantee the project of “socialism in one country,” the “one country” being Russia and its territories.
Stalinist diplomatic policy was continued by Krushchev as “peaceful coexistence” and, concerning Jews, involved a double-strategy; there was practical surveillance and containment at home, including in Eastern Europe and Birobidzhan, and accusations of disloyalty levelled at Jews who wished to emigrate to Israel; and there was symbolic containment abroad, with identification of Jews with Israel, treating Israel as a de-facto Jewish state and Jews around the world as spoken for by that state. What should be noticed here is the enforcement of ethnic and racial homogeneity.
This homogenising of identity is one of the trademarks of stalinist realism; while the working class of each nation was expected to follow its own “road to socialism” – the “British Road” becoming the self-description of the Communist Party of Great Britain adhering to the logic of “socialism in one country,” for instance – Jews who did not identify with Israel, and even, inside the Soviet Bloc, those that did, were accused of being “cosmopolitans.”
In the worldview of stalinist realism, “cosmopolitan” becomes the new negative code-word for what was once in Marxism, and in the Bolshevik party that brought about the Russian Revolution, positive inclusive “internationalism,” what we could now term “open communism.” Jews, including Jewish socialists of the Bund – the “General Jewish Labour Bund” in Russia, Poland and Lithuania, where it was founded in 1897 – were subject to antisemitism after the Second World War, in some cases to pogroms, and fled to Israel. There they carried on their socialist internationalist organising and agitation against capitalism in the Israeli state, some of them concluding that the Jewish people were effectively disappearing, being encouraged to abandon Yiddish, and forced to adapt to a Zionist “Israeli” Hebrew-speaking nation state (Torbiner, 2012).
Stalinist realism pretends to define what is “real” in social processes, most significantly here as concerns national and cultural-ethnic identity. And so stalinist realism operates as if it is possible to definitively, for state-bureaucratic purposes, define what Jew is. Today this is accompanied by the claim that self-definition is an expression of so-called “identity politics,” which adherents of a stalinist realist view of the world set themselves against. For Jews this attempt at external “objective” definition runs against a tradition of fierce claims and counter-claims about identity which is always self-defined. In addition to the many varieties of Judaism, adherents of which often accuse other denominations of not being Jewish, there are the explicitly anti-Zionist currents inside Israel ranging from the ultra-Orthodox Haredi Neturei Karta to the revolutionary Marxist Matpen (Torbiner, 2004).
This worldview is elaborated diplomatically on a global scale according the distinctively stalinist realist precept of “campism,” in which it is assumed that one constellation of identities and regimes can be mobilised against another. This is still functional to Russia today which ramps up national chauvinist propaganda internally, demanding conformity to the demands of the state, and claims to defend “Russian” speakers against neighbouring states that are accused of being subject to outside influences and, at times in Putin’s speeches, accused of not really existing.
Against Lenin’s insistence on the right of Ukraine to national self-determination, for instance, Putin implements a stalinist realist definition of identity which defines which identities count and which ones do not. This, at the same time as repeating antisemitic tropes about the Russian Revolution being a time of chaos benefitting outside interests; read “cosmopolitans” and then, by implication, according to an agenda set by the Jews. The favour was bizarrely returned by Israel when it stayed silent in the first days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and Israel has benefitted from close economic and arms supply links with China, another ideological source point of stalinist realist diplomacy and reasoning.
Campism is poisonous not only for Jews who still follow the internationalist Bund principle of “doikayt” (in Yiddish) or “hereness” – a principle that declares that the struggle is wherever they live and work, as opposed to the romanticising of another country to which they could travel and live in a homogeneous community – but also for all peoples subject to categorisation and allotment to one side or another, as if either intrinsically “progressive” or “reactionary.” The campist logic in stalinist realism is what leads the Putin regime to operate in an ostensible “axis of resistance” which is then cheered on by supporters around the world who mistakenly believe that they are then siding with the “progressive” states against the “reactionary” ones.
This then leads, as it did in high-Stalinist times, to a downplaying of criticism of a range of regimes, including, depending on diplomatic niceties at any particular moment, Venezuela and Zimbabwe, and Syria and Iran, the latter two adopting what they term an “Anti-Zionist” position that often amounts to little more than barely-disguised antisemitism. In those cases “Anti-Zionism” is often, as right-wing supporters of Israel are prone to claim, indeed code for antisemitism. This kind of supposedly-progressive “axis” or “camp” will also, for those who follow such a worldview, at times include non-state actors such as Hamas or Hezbollah, involvement of which should send further alarm signals to those in alliance with progressive Jews and attempting to combat antisemitism in popular movements, including in the anti-war movement.
Stalinist realism pretends to specify not only which national cultures or local ethnicities are progressive but also those that are reactionary; this is the propaganda ploy of the Putin regime and its supporters who oscillate between an insistence that Ukraine does not really exist – this is where the “realism” is brought into play to discredit claims to self-determination – and the implication that all Ukrainians, for example, are, by definition, fascist. In the case of Ukraine, this derogation of an entire nation, supposedly in defence of Russian-speaking minorities, is accompanied by claims that Ukrainians are intrinsically antisemitic. Such nationalist Russian state propaganda, note, is targeting a country that is run by a Russian-speaking Jewish president, Zelenskyy, who is not himself “progressive” and seeks identification and alliance with Israel in his call for military support against the Russian invasion. The cultural-political nuances of the situation are washed away in the stalinist realist worldview, one which benefits, as diplomatic manoeuvres and propaganda did under Stalin, certain states posing as somehow progressive.
Here, and in other cases, the much-vaunted criticism of “identity-politics” by those caught in the ideological cross-currents of stalinist realism conceals another more solid notion of identity – “real” identity as opposed to symbolic strategic kinds – that is then defined and, when necessary, enforced. At some moments this wielding of criticism of identity politics is itself tactical, as in the supposed “defence” of Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine (at the very same time as local left leaders are assassinated). At other moments it is much more concrete and permanent, as in the claims that an intrinsically anti-racist and progressive white working class in the “red wall” industrial heartlands are being undermined by those with a fragmentary “identity politics” agenda. Those, including radical Jewish groups who refuse to identify with Israel, and who complain about racism or antisemitism are then themselves accused of being racist, of stirring up discontent and division. Curiously, and paradoxically, it is then the very lack of attachment to identity among “intersectional” leftist and queer activists that is cited as evidence for their supposedly reactionary “identity politics.”
The concrete and assumed underlying “real” aspect of what are actually historically-evolving cultural identities has been at the core in recent years of debates over antisemitism in Germany, debates that threaten Marxism as such. These debates should serve as a stark warning to all of us on the left. Potently present in the caricatures of Marxism that have been thrown around are motifs that actually come from the corrupted bureaucratic version of Marxism that we find in Stalinism and, today, in stalinist realism. This is one place where the antisemitic ideological currents in the Soviet Union and the Eastern European states until 1989 have such a powerful poisonous effect. When such stalinist realism claims that it is the only one alternative to capitalism – the destiny of the concrete and unchanging character of the working class of a nation – then it is understandable, if no less tragic, that some on the left are drawn from practical-critique of this economic-political order to its defence, defence of what are seen as liberal tolerant values against hardened dogma.
It is the particular nature of the dogma that is targeted in the recent so-called “anti-German” debates in which it is assumed that to be “anti-German” is to take a progressive position. This “anti-German” position, and accompanying hostility to Marxism, has then been relayed from that national context into other contexts to weaponise accusations of antisemitism against the left; it has been thrown both against those who are entirely innocent of the charge as well as against some who are, it is true, absolutely guilty of it and need to be called out.
Why is the “anti-German” position, which aims to understand the grip of antisemitism now accompanied by hostility to Marxism? It is more than mere “dogma” that is targeted in these debates; it is precisely the obsession with the “concrete.” Here, a concern with what is “concrete,” which is attributed to Marxists, is countered by a defence of what is “abstract.”
One of the key authors in these debates, someone who brings his own peculiar misreading of Marx to bear in his defence of “abstraction,” is the Canadian ex-Marxist Moishe Postone. Postone claimed, in an influential text circulated in different versions on the Internet, that Marx and then Marxism is hostile to “abstraction,” and in favour, instead, of concrete tangible reality and of forms of community that are adjudged “real.” So, the value form under capitalism, the flow of capital, is, Postone argued, seen by Marx as something intangible, universal and mobile, and this characteristic of capital, Postone claimed, chimes with antisemitic complaints about Jews, ideological tropes that revolve around an assumed “abstractness, intangibility, universality, mobility” (Postone, 2008).
What is significant and potent here in the “anti-German” debates is not so much Postone’s own formulations, which did vary during the years he was writing, but the uptake of them by those on the right, and some on the left, who compounded the misunderstanding of Marx that was being propagated in these online texts. The ideological effect of these claims is to treat Marxism as an extremist and latently antisemitic belief system that is as hostile to Jews as is fascism.
As has been pointed out in critiques of Postone, there is a double misunderstanding here; of Marx and of the nature of fascism. First, the accounts of Marx’s analytic comments about what is “abstract” in capitalism are actually, a critical response to Postone points out, “an amalgam of individual aspects of Marx’s analysis taken out of context” (Sommer, 2021, p. 16). More than that, the “universality” that capitalism accomplishes is, remember, treated by Marxists precisely as what is most positive about it, a universality that the working class , including the Jewish working class, puts into practice in its internationalism. Secondly, antisemitism under the Nazis, and in other like movements since, have, in fact, mobilised against “concrete” tangible characteristics in the name of higher “abstract” values; one instance is precisely the image of “dirty” practical concern with the material world attributed to Jews that obsessed the Nazis. These are the kind of stereotypical images of the Jews that Marx (1844) seizes upon and quotes and throws back as accusations against Bruno Bauer; Marx’s comments are not designed to endorse but to sarcastically challenge such antisemitic tropes.
The appalling consequences of these arguments play into and intensify mainstream German state political discourse, which voices guilt about the Holocaust while channelling that into financial aid to the Israeli state rather than to actual victims of the Holocaust. In place of genuine solidarity with Jewish victims of the Nazis, many of whom now languish in conditions of poverty with little state support inside Israel, the German state allies itself with Zionism, Zionism that is now dedicated to building an expansionist apartheid state that, among other things, is turning into a death trap for Jews as well as for the Palestinians.
This dominant bad faith identification with Zionism by the German state is aided and abetted by those who parrot Postone and contrast the “blood and soil intifada of the Palestinians,” that is their supposed “concreteness,” to the State of Israel which is abstract, “artificial in the best sense of the word” (cited in Sommer, 2021, p. 72). Declared attachment to the land and the rhetoric of blood and soil is, of course, common to fascist discourse and reactionary Palestinian groups and ardent right-wing Zionists, none of which are remotely anti-capitalist.
Concreteness in Marxist Political Analysis
We should note that the use of and complaint against what is “concrete” by followers of Postone is as misleading as the value given to “abstraction.” Marx explicitly values abstraction as a necessary aspect of any scientific, and social-scientific approach to phenomena. The categories employed in his analysis build on empirical data to construct “abstractions” like “capital,” “value” and, indeed, “the proletariat” as an avowedly internationalist force that will achieve and then dissolve its own specific historically-constituted and claimed identity in the process of overthrowing capitalism. And the “concrete,” for Marx, is the diametric opposite of the appeal to the German “Volk” and their tie to the land in different strains of German pagan traditions, philosophy and then Nazism.
What is “concrete” for Marx (1857) is itself something to be conceptualised, grasped, he says, in its “many determinations”; it is not like a lump of concrete to be directly observed and measured, but is given reality for us by its relation to other things. One might even say that this understanding of what is concrete is actually critical of crude caricatures of materialism in Soviet Marxism and quite close to contemporary feminist-inflected accounts of the importance of “intersectionality” to theory and practice (pace Macnair, 2021).
The recent anti-Marxist movements in Germany feed on the distortions of Marxism that were designed to buttress the Stalinist bureaucracy, and they have buried within them their own strange replication of the very stalinist realism that they ostensibly rebel against. Actually, they make no such fine distinction between Stalinism and revolutionary Marxism, but end up setting themselves against revolutionary internationalist politics. We see this in a peculiarity of the “anti-German” movement that Postone himself drew attention to, one of the drivers of his own analysis of antisemitism. Postone argued for specific analysis of the rise of Nazism in Germany, while his followers today who are busy pushing German politics to the right see antisemitism everywhere, as if it were a universal danger regardless of historical processes in different nation states (Zurowski, 2021).
In place of Postone’s (1979) own earlier critiques of Nazism as a movement that developed, he says, “in the interests of capital,” there is an allegiance to capitalism in the name of anti-fascism, allegiance to capitalism in German and to capitalism in Zionist Israel. This does not do internationalist Jews critical of Zionism any favours. In fact, it puts them in danger, and continues with many twists and turns the antisemitism that was present in the early days of the socialist movement in Europe. Antisemitism that had to be denounced and combated, was given new life and is carried into the left today by stalinist realism.
There is an alternative to capitalism and to stalinist realism, the tradition of “open communism” that links its analysis of the “many determinations” that are at work in any particular cultural-historical context with intersectional and multi-faceted political action (Parker, 2022). This is what is needed to understand the trajectory of antisemitism under capitalism. Antisemitism developed as a material force and as an ideological tool to divide the working class under capitalism, building upon the exclusion of Jews from power and their assignment to specific permitted professions, including to those that were then also damned as entailing “usury” (Leon, 1942). The Jews, confined and used by capitalism, were then treated as the prime enemy when capitalism sought to demonise emerging organised working-class threats to large private property, and it was then that the spectre of “Judeo-Bolshevism” was evoked in various conspiracy theories and in the destruction of Marxist organisations in Germany.
The internationalist and effectively “open communist” ethos of Marxism before and during the Russian Revolution was turned, as the bureaucracy under Stalin crystallised, into a nationalist caricature that did often trade in its own versions of conspiracy theory to deal with traitors, including Jews, who threatened internal stability or who argued for an alternative. The Left Opposition to Stalin and then the Trotskyist movement were often attacked by Stalinists as being in some way “cosmopolitan,” effectively as Jewish. Marxist analysis enables us to grasp how and why these brutal phenomena – Nazism and Stalinism – arose, and what the stakes are now in building an anti-capitalist movement that is attentive to the role of stalinist realism and antisemitism as helpmeet of reaction.
Fisher, M. (2009) Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? Winchester and Washington: Zero Books.
Leon, A. (1942) ‘The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation’, https://www.marxists.org/subject/jewish/leon/
Macnair, M. (2021) ‘Introduction’, in in M. Sommer, Anti-Postone, pp. xv-xxxix. London: Cosmonaut Press.
Marx, K. (1844) ‘On The Jewish Question’, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/jewish-question/
Marx, K. (1857) ‘Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft)’, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/
Parker, I. (2022) Stalinist Realism and Open Communism: Malignant Mirror or Free Association. London: Resistance Books.
Postone, M. (1979) ‘Anti-Semitism and National Socialism: Notes on the German Reaction to “Holocaust”’, https://ia802801.us.archive.org/23/items/AntiSemitismAndNationalSocialismMoishePostone/Anti-Semitism%20and%20National%20Socialism%20-%20Moishe%20Postone.pdf
Postone, M. (2008) ‘Anti-Semitism and National Socialism’, https://libcom.org/article/anti-semitism-and-national-socialism-moishe-postone
Sommer, M. (2021) Anti-Postone. London: Cosmonaut Press.
Torbiner, E. (dir.) (2004) Matzpen, https://matzpen.org/english/eran-torbiners-film-about-matzpen/
Torbiner, E. (dir.) (2012) Bunda’im, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3bE6uhKxmYU
Zurowski, M. (2010) ‘Translator’s preface’, in M. Sommer, Anti-Postone, pp. vi-xiv. London: Cosmonaut Press.