Many leading Marxist theorists of the 19th century, including Karl Marx himself, were born into Jewish families. Yet the atheistic and internationalist beliefs of individual Jewish Marxists led them to play down their Jewish origins.

Leon Trotsky
Leon Trotsky

Lev Davidovich Trotsky (b. Bronstein, 1879-1940), known as Leon Trotsky, was a theorist and major leader of the October Revolution in Russia, 1917. As commissar of foreign affairs and defence in the Soviet Union (1917-24), Trotsky advocated international revolution. He was tipped to succeed Lenin as leader, but was thwarted by Stalin and expelled from the USSR in 1929. He continued to agitate from outside but was murdered by a Stalinist agent in Mexico, 1940.

Lev Borisovich Kamenev (b. Rosenfeld, 1883-1936) was a Bolshevik from 1903, and chair of the first Committee of Soviets. He joined Stalin to oppose Trotsky, later changed sides, only to be shot after the first public show trial.

Grigory Yevseyevich Zinoviev (b. Ovsel Gershon Radomyslsky, 1883-1936) was a brilliant orator, head of the Leningrad Bolsheviks and first chairman of Comintern. He fell victim to Stalin’s Great Purge and was executed in 1936.

Bela Kun (1886-1939), a doctrinaire Marxist and head of the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919, died in one of Stalin’s purges.

Rosa Luxembourg
Rosa Luxembourg

Rosa Luxembourg (1871-1919) defended Marxist orthodoxy against the revisionism of Eduard Bernstein in 1898. She was later jailed in Poland. She formed the Spartacus League, was forerunner of the Communist Party of Germany and died during the Spartacus Revolt in 1919.

Lazar Moiseyevich Kaganovich (1893-1991) was a Stalinist hardliner who consolidated Soviet rule in Turkmenistan and built up Soviet heavy industry.

The Communist Party of Israel originated in 1920. As Maki, it forms part of the joint Jewish-Arab Hadash front. Leading Jewish members include Tamar Gozansky and Meir Vilner, who signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

Marxist idealists outside the USSR felt betrayed as Stalin indulged in purges, and even signed a pact with Hitler in 1939. Arthur Koestler (1905-1983) wrote of his disillusionment in Darkness at Noon and The God that Died.

Several 20th century theorists developed Marxism in humanist directions, often to the chagrin of Soviet authorities. The Hungarian Jew, Gyorgy Lukacs (1885-1971) applied Marxism to history and aesthetics. The German-born US writer, Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) laid the groundwork for the 1960s ‘New Left’, and inspired young French Jews like Bandit-Cohn and Levi-Strauss.

Jews were increasingly victimised by post-war Communist regimes. Stalin accused Jewish doctors of plotting to poison Andrei Zhdanov in 1953. Czech Vice Premier Rudolf Slansky (1901-1952) was tried for being a ‘Zionist agent’ and executed, along with other Jewish communists. Officially sanctioned antisemitism escalated in Soviet bloc states after Israel’s victory in the 1967 war.

Membership of Marxist parties allowed many individual Jews to attain political power for the first time in centuries. Yet in practice, Marxism served to obliterate the cultural and religious basis of several east European Jewish communities.