The Bund and Early Zionism

A Bundist demonstration in 1917

A Bundist demonstration in 1917

This article was published by Alliance (Marxist-Leninist) as part of the publication Alliance, issue #30, “Marx, Lenin and Stalin on Zionism.”

The term Zionism, actually dates from the late 1890’s and was supposedly coined by Nathan Birnbaum. But many authorities accept that it was only made into a popular term by Theodore Herzl.

“The term Zionism was first used publicly by Nathan Birnbaum at a discussion meting in Vienna…23 January 1892. The history of political Zionism begins with the publication of Theodore Herzl’s Judenstaat four years later at the first Zionist Congress… Before the word Zionism became generally accepted, the term Palestinofilvsto (Hibat Zion) was widely used in Russia.”

Preface; Walter Lacquer; A History of Zionism; New York; 1976; p. xiii

Theodore Herzl was a first a lawyer, and then a journalist and playwright. He believed that the idea of the Jewish state was a historical necessity, that was essential in order to overcome anti-Semitism. He considered both the Argentine and Palestine as potential places where the Jews of the world could find a haven from persecution. Herzl always maintained that he had not made a new discovery, but that he had simply resurrected an old solution- that of a Jewish State:

“Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State: An Attempt at a Modern Solution of the Jewish Question) was written in 1896…(In it – Ed) Herzl disclaimed having made any sensational new discovery. On the contrary…’The idea which I have developed in this pamphlet is an ancient one. It is the restoration of the Jewish state…I have discovered neither the Jewish situation as it has crystallized in history, nor the means to remedy it.'”

Walter Lacquer; A History of Zionism; New York; 1976; p. 86

So convinced was Herzl that a separate state existence was the only solution for the Jews, that he came to a secret agreement with Plevhe – the notorious Tsarist Home minister who had sponsored pogroms in Russia (See above) to encourage Jews to leave Russia for Palestine. This was simply the first of many later “accomodations” of Zionists with rabid anti-Semites.

The First Zionist Congress was held in Basle, Switzerland on 29 August 1897. (Walter Lacquer; A History of Zionism; New York; 1976; p. 103).

Most Marxists agree that the growth of Zionism, reflected the intense anti-Semitism persecution that the Jewish people, workers especially, suffered. A Trotskyite Jew, the Belgian Abraham Leon, wrote a useful study of the Jewish Question. According to Leon, Zionism was a response to the worst racism, expressed in the anti-Jewish pogroms:

“Zionism was born in the light of the incendiary fire of the Russian pogroms of 1882 and in the tumult of the Dreyfus Affair…In Russia the association of the ‘Lovers of Zion’ were founded. Leo Pinsker wrote ‘Auto-emancipation’ in which he called for a return to Palestine as the sole possible solution of the Jewish question…In Paris Baron Rothschild, who like all the Jewish magnates viewed with very little favour the mass arrival of Jewish immigrants in the Western countries, became interested in Jewish colonization in the Palestine… A short while later.. Theodore Herzl saw anti-Semitic demonstrations at Paris provoked by the Dreyfus Affair.”

Abraham Leon, The Jewish Question-A Marxist Interpretation; New York; 1970; pp.244-245.

In Russia there were several Jewish ideological movements. The first Zionist movements were led by David Gordon and Perz Smolenskin. But these were superseded by various socialist currents within the Zionist stream. One sprung out of the Lovers of Zion movement mentioned above by Leon, and was called Workers of Zion (Poalei-Zion) which formed in 1906 from groups in Minsk and in Southern Russia. They were led by Ber Borochov, who:

“Affirmed that Jewish immigration would flow to Israel by a process of natural attraction. The Zionist revolution would be carried out by the Jewish proletariat through class struggle.”

Benjamin Pinkus: The Jews of the Soviet Union; Cambridge; 1988; p.41

But these various currents, were in general eclipsed by the Bund (Or the General Workers’ Union of Lithuania, Poland and Russia). This was the most important Jewish workers socialist party and was established in 1897. It stood for the autonomous organisation of Jewish workers. It was a section of the general Russian Social-Democrats until it formulated its policy for a so called cultural autonomy. This took place at Bialystok in May 1901. This step led to its membership being torn in two, but it nonetheless between the years 1903-1905, had some 30,000 members. But by 1916 it had declined, only to jump up in numbers by the time of December 1917. (Benjamin Pinkus: The Jews of the Soviet Union; Cambridge; 1988; p.43).

It took a social-chauvinist stand during World War I and during the Civil War supported the counter-revolutionary forces. It finally dissolved itself in 1921.

Stalin explained why the Bund was more or less, obliged to take up the position of the cultural autonomy in the way it did. By its Sixth Congress (1905), the national programme on the grounds of national autonomy was enshrined. Stalin argued that it was made inevitable by two factors.

The first was the organizational refusal to join with the larger international tide of Russian Social Democracy (ie Marxism-Bolshevism) as it grew:

“The first circumstance is the existence of the Bund as an organisation of Jewish and only Jewish Social Democratic workers. Even before 1897 the Social-Democratic groups active among the Jewish workers set themselves the aim of creating a ‘special Jewish workers’ organisations’. They founded such an organisation in 1897, by uniting to form the Bund. That was at a time when the Russian Social Democracy as an integral body virtually did not yet exist. The Bund steadily grew and spread, and stood out more vividly against the bleak days of Russian social democracy.. Then came the 1900’s. A mass labour movement came into being. Polish Social Democracy grew and drew the Jewish workers into the mass struggle. Russian social democracy grew and attracted the Bund workers. Lacking a territorial basis, the national framework of the Bund became too restrictive. The Bund was faced with the problem of either merging with the general international tide, or of upholding its independent existence as an extra-territorial organisation. The Bund chose the latter course. Thus grew up the ‘theory’ that the Bund is ‘the sole representative of the Jewish proletariat’. But to justify this strange ‘theory’ in any simple way became impossible… The Bund seized on >Cultural -national autonomy.”

Stalin; “Marxism & The National Question”: Ibid; p.346-347

The second factor was the peculiar and isolated position of the Jews:

“The second circumstance is the peculiar position of the Jews as separate national minorities within compact majorities of other nationalities in integral regions. We have already said that this position is undermining the existence of the Jews as a nation and puts them on the road to assimilation. But this is an objective process. Subjectively in the minds of the Jews, it provokes a reaction and gives rise to the demand for a guarantee of the rights of a national minority, for a guarantee against assimilation.. The Bund could not avoid being in favor of a ‘guarantee’.. it could not but accept national autonomy. For if the Bund could seize upon any autonomy at all, it could only be national autonomy, ie. Cultural national autonomy for the Jews since the Jews have no definite integral territory.”

Ibid; p.347.

Stalin asked pointedly:

“Can institutions guarantee a nation ‘complete freedom of cultural development?’ Can a Diet for cultural affairs guarantee a nation against nationalist persecution? The Bund believes it can. But history proves the contrary.”

Ibid; p.349

Stalin’s central point is that the absence of democracy ensures no guarantees for “freedom of cultural development.” Stalin goes on to cite the cases of Russian Poland and Finland. He then pointed out that the Bund’s splitting tendencies of the workers movements were exposed, by its further actions. These included the clauses whereby the Bund placed emphasis on the Jewish language above all others:

“But it becomes still more harmful when it is thrust upon a ‘nation’ whose existence and future are open to doubt. In such cases the advocates of national autonomy are obliged to protect and preserve all the peculiar features of the ‘nation’, the bad as well as the good, just for the sake of ‘saving the nation’ from assimilation, just for the sake of ‘preserving’ it. That the Bund should take this dangerous path was inevitable. And it did take it. We are referring to the resolutions of recent conferences of the Bund on the question of the ‘Sabbath,’ ‘Yiddish’, etc. Social democracy strives to secure for all nations the right to use their own language. But that does not satisfy the Bund; it demands that ‘the rights of the Jewish language’ be championed with ‘exceptional persistence’ and the Bund itself in the elections to the 4th Duma declared that it would give ‘preference to those of them (ie electors) who undertake to defend the rights of Jewish language.’ Not the general right of all nations to use their own language, but the particular right of the Jewish language, Yiddish!…But in what way then does the Bund differ from the bourgeois nationalists?”

Ibid; p.352-353

Stalin now exposed the Bund’s passage into a chauvinist position, one that was anti-internationalist and anti-proletarian:

“It is not surprising that the effect of this state of affairs upon the workers is to weaken their sense of solidarity and to demoralize them; and the latter process is also penetrating the Bund. We are referring to the increasing collisions between Jewish and Polish workers in connection with unemployment. Here is the kind of speech that was made on this subject at the 9th Conference of the Bund: ‘We regard the Polish workers, who are ousting us, as pogromists, as scabs, we do not support their strikes, we break them.'”

Ibid; p.358-359.

Lenin made clear in several subsequent articles that he agreed with Stalin. For example, in “Does the Jewish Proletariat Need an ‘Independent political party?'”, in 1903, Lenin expresses caustic surprise as to a recent violation by the Bund. Despite polemics with the Bund, where the Bund asserted its= wish to remain part of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), the Bund was now proclaiming itself as an independent political party:

“The Jewish proletariat had formed itself into an independent political party, the Bund. We did not know this before. This is something new. Hitherto the Bund has been a constituent part of the RSDLP…It is true that at the 4th Congress of Bund, the Bund decided to change its name…On the other hand when Iskra polemicised with the decision of the Bund’s 4th Congress, the Bund itself stated very definitely that it only wanted to secure the acceptance of its wishes and decisions by the RSDLP; in other words it flatly and categorically acknowledged that until the RSDLP adopted new Rules and settled new forms of attitude towards the Bund, the latter would remain a section of the RSDLP…But now… this is something new.”

Lenin, V.I: “Does the Jewish proletariat need an independent political party?”; Iskra 1903; In Collected Works; Moscow; 1985; Vol 6; p. 328-329.

Lenin goes on to describe how the Bund has attacked the Jewish Ekaterinoslav Committee – which had adopted an internationalist position already. The Bund’s attack was on the question of where does anti-Semitism arise from? The Ekaterinoslav committee had argued that the roots of anti-Semitism were international, and that it found “adherents among the bourgeois and not among the working class sections of the population” (Lenin Ibid; p. 331).

But the Bund had chastised the Ekaterinoslav committee for this, arguing that anti-Semitism has “struck roots in the mass of the workers.” Lenin denied the Bund’s view linking anti-Semitism with the bourgeois interests:

“The link that undoubtedly exists between anti-Semitism and the interests of the bourgeois, and not of the working class sections of the population. If they had given it a little more thought they might have realised that the social character of anti-Semitism today is not changed by the fact that dozens or even hundreds of unorganised workers, nine-tenths of whom are still quite ignorant, take part in a pogrom…We must not weaken the force of our offensive by breaking up into numerous independent political parties.”

Lenin Ibid; p. 331-332.

He elsewhere repeated again that the way forward was assimilation, and not separation:

“Can we possibly attribute to chance the fact that it is the reactionary forces all over Europe and especially Russia who oppose the assimilation of the Jew and try to perpetuate their isolation? That is precisely what the Jewish problem amounts to: assimilation or isolation? — and the idea of a Jewish ‘nationality’ is definitely reactionary not only when expounded by its consistent advocates (the Zionists), but likewise on the lips of those who try to combine it with the ideas of Social Democracy (The Bundists). The idea of a Jewish nationality runs counter to the interests of the Jewish proletariat, for it fosters among them directly or indirectly, the spirit of the ‘ghetto.'”

Lenin: “Position of the Bund in the Party”; Collected Works; Vol 7; Moscow; 1986 p.101

Should Workers Always Support A National Status?

We argued earlier, that Stalin’s central position regarding Jewish claims of nationhood, was that democratic rights and freedom from oppressions were the key demands that needed to be won – and not “nationhood.” The position, of Lenin and Stalin, was always that nations – if a national status did in fact exist (by definitions provided by Stalin) – should have the full right to self-determination.

“The right of self-determination means that a nation may arrange its life in the way it wishes. It has the right to arrange its life on the basis of autonomy. It has the right to enter into federal relations with other nations. It has the right to complete secession. Nations are sovereign, and all nations have equal rights.”

Stalin; Ibid; p.321.

But even if there is a nation, NOT all claims to nationhood are strategically defensible from the workers perspective. For example the Marxist-Leninist will not necessarily support all claims to nationhood if they obstruct the working peoples. For instance, the resurrection of the influence of the beys and mullahs, in Transcaucasia, would not have been in the best interests of the toiling strata. The best answer for the workers and toilers, depends upon the precise historical situation. It must be carefully found by looking at the precise facts:

“A nation has the right to arrange its life on autonomous lines. It even the has the right to secede. But this does not mean that it should do so under all circumstances, that autonomy or separation, will everywhere and always be advantageous for a nation; ie. For its majority, ie for the toiling strata. The Transcacausian Tartars as a nation may assemble, let us say, in their Diet and succumbed to the influence of their beys and mullahs, decide to restore the old order of things and to secede from the state. According to the meaning of the clause on self-determination they are fully entitled to do so. But will this be in the interest of the toiling strata of the Tartar nation? Can Marxists look on indifferently when the beys and mullahs assume the leadership of the masses in the solution of the national question?…Should not Marxists come forward with a definite plan for the solution of the question, a plan which would be most advantageous for the Tartar masses?…But what solution would be most compatible with the interests of the toiling masses? Autonomy, federation or separation? All these are problems the solution of which will depend on the concrete historical conditions in which the given nation finds itself…Conditions like everything else change, and a decision which is correct at one particular time may prove to be entirely unsuitable at another.”

Stalin; Ibid; p.324

Stalin was clear upon the rights of minorities and the national question. For example, where there is one geographical region with different minorities, or proto-nations, living side by side. This is a special type of national problem. Such situations are still frequent. In Stalin’s day, in Europe, this situation existed in Transcaucasia. As a precondition to solve the problems of these areas, Stalin insisted that:

“The complete democratisation of the country is the basis and condition for the solution of the national question.”

Stalin; Ibid; p.373.

But, Stalin recognised that there was a possibility that independence and secession was necessary for some parts. He then considered the possibility that for some parts regional autonomy was preferable. This was so he argued, for “The Jews in Poland, the Letts in Lithuania, the Russians in the Caucasus, the Poles in the Ukraine and so on…”

This was for two reasons;
Firstly, because it disposed of a fiction bereft of territory; and,
Secondly, it did not divide people by nation:

“The only correct solution is regional autonomy, autonomy for such crystallised units as Poland, Lithuania, the Ukraine, the Caucasus etc. The advantage of regional autonomy consists first of all in the fact that it does not deal with a fiction bereft of territory, but with a definite population inhabiting a definite territory. Next it does not divide people according to nations, it does not strengthen national barriers; on the contrary it breaks down these barriers and unites the population in such a manner as to open the way for division of a different kind, division according to classes…Of course, not one of these regions constitutes a compact homogeneous nation, for each is interspersed with national minorities. Such are the Jews in Poland, the Letts in Lithuania, the Russians in the Caucasus, the Poles in the Ukraine, and so on. It may be feared therefore that the minorities will be oppressed by the national majorities. But there will be grounds for fear only if the old order continues to prevail in the country. Give the country complete democracy and all grounds for fear will vanish.”

Stalin; Ibid; p.376.

Again – the key issue for Stalin, was that definite, visible, meaningful and clear democratic rights (for instance to use its own language etc). should be granted. So strongly did he feel about this, that he repeats it. He argues that without it an “artificial union” means nothing; and that with it the perceived need for “national union” disappear. He identifies what is it that “agitates” a national minority as discrimination of language, liberty of conscience – religious liberty, self regulated schooling etc:

“What the minorities want is not an artificial union but real rights in the localities they inhabit. What can such a union give them without complete democratisation? On the other hand, what need is there for a national union when there is complete democratisation? What is that particularly agitates a national minority? A minority is discontented not because there is not national union but because it does not enjoy the right to use its native language. Permit it to use its native language and the discontent will pass of itself. A minority is discontented not because there is no artificial union but because it does not possess it own schools. Give it its own schools and all grounds for discontent will disappear. A minority is discontented not because there is not national union, but because it does not enjoy liberty of conscience (religious liberty), liberty of movement, etc. Give it those liberties and it will cease to be discontented. Thus equal rights of nation in all forms (language, schools, etc) is an essential element in the solution of the national question.. Complete democratisation of the country is required.”

Stalin; Ibid; p.375-377

Stalin’s view, regarding the formation of multi-national states, was the basis for Lenin’s viewpoint that echoed Kautsky (See Lenin above). This was that the formation of multi-national states, is a “special method” of the formation of states, and one which takes place in territories where certain conditions hold, that are more common in the East.

These conditions are:
1) Where more than one pre-nation (or nascent nationality) exists;
2) Where capitalism has not yet been eliminated; and
3) Where capitalism is feebly developed but is more developed in one of the pre-nations concerned than in the other (or others):

“Whereas in the West (of Europe-ed) nations developed into states, in the East multi-national states were formed…This special mode of formation of states could take place only where feudalism has not yet been eliminated, where capitalism was feebly developed, where the nationalities which had been forced into the background had not not been able to consolidate themselves economically into integral nations.”

Stalin Ibid; p.314.

Again, even in this context of the multi-national state, Stalin used the example of Transcaucasia. Stalin favoured Democratisation and Regional Autonomy – equating with national status – within a larger federation.

In summary the views of Lenin and Stalin on Zionism were:

1. The Jews did not form a nation;
2. The Jewish workers were the most oppressed section of the Jewish peoples, all of whom were discriminated against and maltreated;
3. The solution to their woes was assimilation; and ultimately socialism;
4. But their legitimate feelings of oppression should be directly addressed by immediate granting of full democratic rights, including language rights etc;
5. The Bund and other Zionist organisation which tried to pull workers away from affiliations with the internationalist workers movement, were objectively fomenting a counter-revolutionary division.

Source

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