Norman Geras posts a fascinating essay on Trotsky and the Jews. It's asking for trouble to take issue with Professor Geras, author of The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg, on this but my reading of the later Trotsky is somewhat different from his.
Luxemburg wrote in 1917 to a friend that she was at home wherever there were clouds and human tears, but that she had no special corner in her heart reserved for the ghetto. Two decades later, on the very threshold of the disaster [i.e. the Shoah] whose threatening shape he had somehow managed to perceive ahead of time, Trotsky reserved a corner of his mind, at least, for the original people of the ghetto.
Trotsky was of course aware of the uses of antisemitism under the Stalinist regime, and was a visible victim of that poison. Indeed, he wrote an article in 1937 on Thermidor and Anti-Semitism, setting out his views. ('Thermidor' was the coup that caused the downfall of Robespierre in 1794, and Trotsky is thus drawing an analogy between different counter-revolutions, French and Stalinist, 18th-century and 20th-century.) But nowhere in that late article do I infer awareness of the nature and – given the ferocious persecutions already being practised in Europe – necessity of pursuing Jewish particularist claims. He wrote:
[N]ot a single progressive, thinking individual will object to the USSR’s designating a special territory for those of its citizens who feel themselves to be Jews, who use the Jewish language in preference to all others and who wish to live as a compact mass.... Are we not correct in saying that a world socialist federation would have to make possible the creation of a 'Birobidjan' for those Jews who wish to have their own autonomous republic as the arena for their own culture? It may be presumed that a socialist democracy will not resort to compulsory assimilation. It may very well be that within two or three generations the boundaries of an independent Jewish republic, as of many other national regions, will be erased. I have neither time nor desire to meditate on this. Our descendants will know better than we what to do. I have in mind a transitional historical period when the Jewish question, as such, is still acute and demands adequate measures from a world federation of workers' states.
Birobidjan was the supposedly autonomous region allocated to the Jews in the USSR. And so far from being a recognition of Jewish national claims, it was a means of breaking collective Jewish identity. Its inhabitants were scattered among towns thousands of miles apart, isolated from each other and without means of recalling their heritage or practising their observance. Trotsky refers to the 'bureaucratic despotism' of Birobidjan, but that’s no more than the sectarian and pedantic criticism of a man fundamentally in sympathy with the polity and society that, after all, he himself had helped create. The entire Soviet system was, to him, a 'deformed workers' state' rather than, as it actually was, a monstrous and irredeemably evil totalitarianism.
In the third volume of his definitive survey of Marxist thought, Main Currents of Marxism, Leszek Kolakowski notes:
There was never any such thing as a Trotskyist theory - only a deposed leader who tried desperately to recover his role, who could not realise that his efforts were vain, and who would not accept responsibility for a state of affairs which he regarded as a strange degeneration, but which was in fact the direct consequence of the principles that he, together with Lenin and the whole Bolshevik party, had established as the foundations of socialism.
On my reading this was as true in Trotsky's treatment of the Jewish question as on wider questions. While writing late in life about antisemitism, he made no reference, so far as I am aware, to the persecutions practised by the early Soviet state and which Stalin merely refined rather than invented.
There is a wider question of the relations of the Trotskyist movement to the Jews. My friend Werner Cohn wrote a long and definitive study of this subject in the Journal of Communist Studies 12 years ago.
Werner's argument, assembled with much supporting material, is that the Trotskyist movement fundamentally shifted its approach after the Six-Day War in 1967. Before that date, the movement had, while being anti-Zionist, generally seen the Jews as one oppressed nationality among many. After 1967, Trotskyism typically denounced the Jewish state as racist, colonialist and oppressive, and attacked the very notion of Jewish national claims. Simultaneously, the character of Trotskyite ideology became markedly more influenced by propaganda of an earlier generation – specifically Abram Leon's grossly ahistorical tract The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation – that unashamedly maligned the Jewish tradition as one of usury.
There remain a few Trotskyite sects that adhere to the earlier tradition and do not call for the annihilation of the Jewish state, but the dominant strain in modern Trotskyism is of a virulent and frequently thuggish type most obviously associated in Britain with the Socialist Workers' Party. For example, the SWP's house academic, Professor Alex Callinicos of York University, maintains that Israel is a 'racist expansionist state' and calls for its destruction under the guise of a venerable and instantly recognisable euphemism:
The Palestinians on their own can't achieve the change that is really needed - the dismantling of the Zionist state and its replacement by a secular democratic Palestine, in which Jews and Arabs can live together on the basis of freedom and equality.
Quite how the Jews are supposed to look forward to this freedom and equality when they've just had their nation destroyed and their own national claims traduced is not made clear.
One point Werner's paper doesn't mention, for it's not strictly relevant to a consideration of Trotskyism, is that the hostility to Jewish collective identity that infected far-Left campaigning after 1967 had a particularly violent and nihilistic counterpart in Germany in the form of the Red Army Fraction, or Baader-Meinhof gang, and its associated groupuscules. The RAF was, as I have argued in a series of posts on this subject, literally - I don't mean it as a figure of speech - a neo-Nazi terror gang in its ready exculpation of the Nazi regime and its targeting of Jews for killing. (Incidentally, my interlocutor in this debate, Ryan in Manchester, has most unwisely and against my express urgings decided to post once more in order to try to defend his professed 'empathy' with this organisation. I am afraid that, while it takes a lot to surprise me, the dishonesty and frivolity of Ryan's artifices, which prevent him from even the most perfunctory acknowledgement that his facts were wrong and his judgement was appalling, have left me with a moral and intellectual revulsion that has prevented me so far from dealing with this latest bout of tawdriness. But deal with it I shall.)
For these reasons I believe Norman overstates the extent of Trotsky's perspicacity about the Jews. The far-Left now, with a few exceptions, is acting out a morality play that has scant foundation in history or politics. And the hatred that accompanies this does not strike me as alien to Trotsky's thought.