Jewish Socialism

The Jewish Bund in Russia: From its Origins to 1905.
by Henry J. Tobias.
Stanford University Press. 409 pp. $16.50.

A not uncommon political phenomenon, cutting across a variety of national lines, is that of the revolutionary movement around which there evolves an aura of romance and myth. The Russians, for example, have their Narodnaya Volya, the British their Chartists, the Spaniards their anarcho-syndicalist CNT-FAI, the Italians their Red Shirts, and the Americans their Industrial Workers of the World. To be sure, the actual accomplishments of these groups rarely measure up to the legend. In some instances they have degenerated into “populist” movements representing the worst aspects of their national cultures: Narodnaya Volya, in its waning days, became an open defender of pogroms; and the enlightened nationalism of the Red Shirts helped pave the way for Mussolini's jingoistic Fascism. Other groups, by their excesses, can be held responsible for bringing about even more repressive regimes than the ones they opposed: thus the CNT-FAI's terrorist tactics afforded an excuse for Franco's successful counterrevolution and dictatorship. As for the rest, these generally have been political failures, whose contributions to their societies are insignificant except insofar as they have held forth hope to the oppressed, as well as, in some cases, enriching the literature of their native land—a lesser, or greater, achievement, depending on one's point of view.

Outstanding in this last category is the General Jewish Workers' Union of Lithuania, Poland, and Russia, more familiarly known as the Bund. For though the Bund accomplished little in the way of practical melioration for its misery-ridden constituency, during the twenty-five years of its existence in Russia it succeeded notably in sustaining the spirits of its followers, and in inspiring an enduring body of literature.

The Bund was born and flourished in the Russia of late 19th- and early 20th centuries, where Jews, in contrast to other nationalities inhabiting the vast Czarist territories, constituted a despised minority, forced by imperial ukase to live as untermenschen in the borderlands of empire. Restricted to trade and commerce, or to demeaning labor, the Jews, unlike their Gentile neighbors, the Poles, the Letts, the Ukrainians (who had strong historical ties to their lands), were everywhere regarded as aliens. Even more fundamentally, they were set apart by dint of their uncompromising allegiance to their religion.

The social and economic persecution to which the Jews were subject, described in succinct detail by Professor Tobias in a short introductory chapter to the present study, led many Jews—particularly after the repressions and pogroms of the 1880's—to a search for an immediate solution to their plight. The effort took a variety of forms, primary among them emigration—to America, South Africa, or other Western countries, and, in much smaller numbers, to Palestine; it also took the form of an attraction to the secret radical movements that had recently sprung up and that were aimed at overthrowing the Czarist regime. But though Jews participated in these early radical movements, the movements themselves, in their ideological vagueness, seemed designed to appeal more to an agrarian population than to shtetl or urbanized Jews. Not until the late 1880's and and early 90's, with the emergence of the Socialist movement and its clearer program for reform, did Jewish intellectuals in any significant number join the leftist ranks; and it was in the fertile soil of Socialism that the Bund first took root.


The early Jewish Socialist movement, centered as it was in Vilna, the intellectual hub of East European Jewry, was made up almost entirely of intelligentsia who paid scant attention to the actual, day-to-day problems of the Jewish workers. Their main concern was the formulation of theory, to be hammered out in endless debates (through whose maze Professor Tobias proves an excellent guide). Moreover, the Socialist intellectuals kept a linguistic distance from the Jewish masses, conducting their affairs exclusively in Russian rather than Yiddish. Altogether, their outlook was distinctly universalistic, directed to the alleviation of the ills of the empire as a whole and not merely its Jewish segment. Gradually, however, there came about a shift to particularism, sparked in large measure by the development of a Yiddish literature of consequence and the attendant upsurge of pride in the Yiddish language. Thus, despite opposition on the part of some members of the movement, increasingly the Jewish Socialists “moved further from a concern with the Russian movement,” as Professor Tobias writes, “and closer to a concern with the fate of the Jewish workers around them.”

The “Yiddishization” of the Jewish Socialist movement, proceeding apace with the recognition that the problems of the Jewish proletariat were not completely coincident with those of the Russian masses, led eventually to the formation, in Vilna in 1897, of the Bund. But even this new-found awareness of the uniqueness of the Jewish situation did not result in immediate action. Indeed, it was not until 1901 that the Bund, at its fourth Congress, paid attention to the special needs of the Jewish workers; and another four years—a period marked by much soul-searching on the part of the Bund leadership over how to reconcile national consciousness with class consciousness—were to elapse before the Bund fully developed its program of national cultural autonomy.


If the Jewish national question created internal problems within the ranks of the Bund, its relations with the faction-ridden Russian Social-Democratic Workers party, which it had been instrumental in forming in 1898, led to difficulties of another sort. The Bund was by far the largest Socialist organization within the RSDWP, a fact that aroused the jealous ire of the other groups comprising the party. Moreoever, after 1901 its program diverged from that of the Russian Socialists, for the Bund was now not merely another organization with a Socialist ideology but also a movement aimed at national cultural self-determination. It thus insisted upon a new form of organization for the RSDWP, demanding a switch from the centralized control then in effect to a federative set-up. The result was a polemical assault on the Bund by no less an eminence than Lenin; the antagonism reached a climax at the 1903 Congress, where the RSDWP split into Menshevik and Bolshevik factions, with the Bund remaining outside both.

The details of this factional maneuvering are among the most intricate, and saddening, in leftist history. They include alliances within alliances, petty bickerings under a mask of theoretical debate, acts of betrayal and self-delusion. The struggle united Martov, the Menshevik, with Lenin, the Bolshevik, against the Bund, and then opposed them to each other. In the end, all hope for unity among Russia's Socialists was effectively destroyed and the groundwork laid for Lenin's destruction of the non-Bolshevik Socialist movement after the November revolution of 1917.


Professor Tobias's retelling of these events is comprehensive, intelligent, and readily accessible even to the non-specialist reader. He is somewhat less successful in his account of the disagreement between the Bund and the Labor Zionist movement, a key point in any consideration of the Bund but one to which he assigns insufficient importance (as well as insufficient space). For if there was one movement which, more than any other, competed for the same constituency as the Bund, it was Labor Zionism. Both pitched their appeals to the Jewish working class, but while agreeing on Socialism as the answer to the problems of the proletariat, they fought vehemently over their respective solutions to the Jewish question. To the end, their relationship remained one of mutual hostility. Professor Tobias contents himself with a brief discussion of the matter, preferring to regard the struggle between the two Jewish labor movements as a mere incident within the context of the Bund's general relations with the larger Jewish community. Yet in the long run, particularly insofar as Jewish interests were concerned, this contest was certainly more crucial than that which took place within the RSDWP.

It is regrettable, too, that Professor Tobias chooses to end his story in the year 1905. The first eight years of the Bund's existence, years of ideological turbulence, were its most interesting, but it would have been helpful to have some discussion of the Bund's subsequent role as a rallying point around which Jews could unite in their struggle against an oppressive social system—a role which continued, in Russia, until the Bund's suppression by Lenin in 1922 (and in Poland, by Hitler and Stalin in 1939). Yet all this notwithstanding, Professor Tobias is to be richly commended for his valuable study of a once-vital Jewish movement, one which despite political failure made a mighty contribution to Jewish life and achieved thereby an undeniable historical importance.

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