A Visionary Planner
Nachman Syrkin: Socialist Zionist—A Biographical Memoir and Selected Essays.
by Marie Syrkin.
Herzl Press. 332pp. $5.00.
Nachman Syrkin was the founder of that political movement which has guided the State of Israel since its inception and which earned its leading place by the role it played in Palestinian life for many years before the state was founded. Yet in spite of his undoubted historical importance, his name is known to few members of the general public here. He died in New York in 1924, a generation before his associate David Ben Gurion became Prime Minister, and those who may be interested in the origin of the principles governing Ben Gurion’s thinking may profitably look for it in this book. It is more than an act of family piety for his daughter, Marie Syrkin, to write a memoir of her father and to reprint translations of some of his more influential essays.
Miss Syrkin remembers her childhood and youth and the wanderings of her family over the face of the earth as a time not only of danger and suffering but of adventure and romance and real enjoyment. These feelings have the effect of making her reminiscences lively reading. Here, for example, is a paragraph giving us the flavor of her family’s life in Paris prior to 1905: “Under the exigencies of her life, my mother, the former medical student, developed unexpected skills. She became an excellent seamstress—so good that she insisted on making my father’s suits out of shiny black alpaca which could be bought cheaply in bolts. My father looked dubious but the enterprise was obviously reasonable. Tailors were a bourgeois convention; if a woman could make a dress for herself and her little daughter why not a man’s suit? One bought a pattern and cut it. I don’t recall the suits but friends who did assured me that Dr., Syrkin’s costumes were viewed with consternation even by his impecunious comrades.”
She has attempted self-consciously to avoid sentimentality and the hero-worshiping attitude of a dutiful daughter, and she has succeeded admirably. She is not afraid to characterize qualities of her father revealed in one of his speeches as “naiveté, impertinence, and idealism.” In fact, through the greater part of the book she leans over backward to be objective about him, and the portrait that emerges is not unlike that of a Don Quixote. Dr. Syrkin’s idea of a proper curriculum for a girl entering her teens, for instance, was to teach her the Bible in Hebrew, Marx in German, and Spinoza in Latin. Even a John Stuart Mill might have been overtaxed by such labors, and Miss Syrkin candidly admits that she never got beyond the first chapters of the great books thrust upon her attention. But if she is frank about her father’s character, she is no less so about her own. She tells a curious story about the time when, during a prolonged absence of her father abroad, having some difficulty in finding storage space for his extensive library, she made the decision to sell a large part of it to a secondhand book dealer. When he returned from his travels and was told what had happened to his books, he said simply: “I think I will have a heart attack.”
When syrkin was reburied in Israel in 1951, we are told, Prime Minister Ben Gurion stepped to the edge of the open grave and said in Hebrew: “Syrkin, hazonkhah yitkayem, your vision will be fulfilled.” This “vision” was a kind of centaur, theoretically speaking, which grafted together modern ideas of nationalism and socialism. However repellent the mixture seemed from a logical point of view, it proved potent and explosive from a psychological one. For if Marx discovered a formula of fission (class struggle) by which society was detonated in revolution, it was his early associate and later antagonist, Moses Hess, who first adumbrated those ideas of fusion (of socialism and nationalism) which have made the most noise in the 20th century and are still being heard from around the world. I say “adumbrated,” but I do not mean to imply that anyone has succeeded quite in clarifying the theory since that time. Clear or not, the strange brew worked with astonishing effectiveness, and this was enough to recommend it to Syrkin who, after settling in this country with his family in 1908, recognized gratefully the invigorating effect upon his movement of American pragmatism, with its comparative indifference to purely intellectual difficulties or even outright inconsistencies. He writes with satisfaction concerning the early history of that movement: “In 1905-6, Socialist Zionist ideas began to take root in the United States. In America, where the Jewish working class was not subject to a particular school of thought, and where every theory was measured by its practical results and possibilities, there was no room for the airy abstractions of Russian Poale Zionism.”
Both nationalism and socialism were “in the air” among East European Jewry around the turn of the century when Syrkin began his work. These impulses found expression in two separate movements, at loggerheads with each other in many respects, Zionism and the Bund. The first to discern any connection between them were the Russian social democrats, Plekhanov and Lenin. Plekhanov “wittily” referred to members of the Bund, in spite of their professed and vehement anti-Zionism, as “Zionists who are afraid of a sea-journey.” And Lenin sagely observed that Jewish nationalism has “an evidently reactionary character, not only in the form advocated by its consistent champions the Zionists, but also in that of the Bundists who try to combine it with social democracy. This idea runs contrary to the interests of the Jewish proletariat inasmuch as it creates directly and indirectly an attitude hostile to assimilation, a ghetto philosophy.”
Syrkin’s original proposal to fuse the ideas of nationalism and socialism was made in Die Judenfrage und der sozialistische Judenstaat (translated in this book simply as The Socialist Jewish State), which appeared in 1898. There he wrote: “For a Jewish state to come into being, it must, from the outset, avoid the ills of modern life. To evoke the sympathetic interest of modern man, its guidelines must be justice, rational planning, and social solidarity. Once a Jewish state has been realized on scientific social principles, the time will come for modern technology to flourish within it. The Jewish state can come about only if it is socialist; only by fusing with socialism can Zionism become the ideal of the whole Jewish people—of the proletariat, the middle class, and the intelligentsia.”
Those who are searching for some clue to the qualities that made Syrkin a leader of a movement which has established and maintained a free government (an impressive accomplishment which demands, according to Edmund Burke, “a sagacious, powerful, and combining mind”) are not likely to find it in his own formal writings. This literary effort, like that of another eminent national leader in our time, Sun Yat-sen, is not particularly illuminating. It must have been some quality of heart or character rather than of mind alone to which such men owed their positions of authority.
I find the barest hint of an exceptional personal and emotional quality in a letter which he addressed to his daughter from Jaffa in 1920: “After years of working and dreaming of Palestine I am now in the land of our future and past. I feel as if we are continuing the great prophetic past and reviving its glory on this sacred soil, which is the cradle of humanity and has a great destiny in the future. It is a splendid country full of innumerable beauties and wonders. It is a permanent spring, so the fields begin to be covered with flowers and blossoms. The soil is not cultivated, but traveling around we meet wonderful groves of oranges, lemons, olives, wine, mostly in Jewish hands. . . . On the mountain of Zion in Jerusalem, in a calm sacred night, one comes in contact with all human heroes of philosophy and ethics, and feels the great truth of Immanuel Kant’s words: ‘burning stars over me and the moral law in me.’”
Marie Syrkin herself is rather harder in her judgment on these romantic “effusions” than she ought to be. In spite of their travelogue banality, her father’s words are moving because he himself is moved. One believes him when he writes: “My eyes were full of tears, and personal tragedy was emphasized but also elevated by universal tragedy. I visited also Bethlehem and Hebron where the graves of Rachel and the patriarchs are to be seen. Dear and sacred legends!”
In the matter of practical politics, Syrkin’s judgment was sometimes sadly awry. In Isaiah Berlin’s terminology, he was a hedgehog rather than a fox. He knew and was capable of communicating One Big Truth; it was the many little truths on the way which defied him. The great political “boners” chronicled in this book were, first, his being a Territorialist for years along with Israel Zangwill (that is, refusing to identify Jewish longing for a homeland with Palestine in particular); second, his being in favor of his movement’s joining the Third International after the October Revolution in Russia. In this he was joined by Ben Gurion. In 1920, the Poale Zion movement split into two parts; the left wing consisted mainly of Russian and Polish Jews who wanted to join the Third International, while the right wing consisted mainly of American, Austrian, and Palestinian Jews who wanted to stay in the Zionist fold. Organizationally, Syrkin stayed with the right wing, but he thought that his group should belong both to the Zionist movement and the Third International. This position became somewhat academic when the Third International rudely rejected the application for admission even of the radical Left Poale Zionists, but Syrkin’s quixotic attempt to yoke together such an unruly pair of steeds as the World Zionist Organization and the Third International is characteristic. To a group of disciples applying for clarification during the crisis, he is reported to have said: “To save unnecessary questions, let’s get this clear: I am for participation in the Zionist Congress and the Third International. I admire the Red Army and I believe in the Jewish Legion. I am for Hebrew and not Yiddish.” No wonder that his followers are reported to have left “perplexed and shocked.”
How Utopian, romantic, and unrealistic sound the words now which Ben Gurion addressed during the critical period of 1920 to Syrkin, with whom he thought he found himself in agreement. He urges Syrkin to go to Russia to explain his position personally to the Bolshevik leaders. He speaks of “the social-ethical power” of the new regime and goes on to say: “In my view there is no International save the Third and the place of every socialist is in it. . . . We must establish contact with its leaders. We must, through personal contact, explain to them the nature of Zionism, and particularly the nature of Socialist-Zionism, and the role of the labor movement in Palestine.” Marie Syrkin is, of course, in order when she points out that “one must remember that these words were written in 1920 in the dawn of the revolution, years before the great disillusionment, when many socialists still hoped that the path of Communism would be toward a socialist democracy not dictatorship.” To be sure, it was many years before the more notorious of the Moscow Trials, but it was quite some time after the forcible dispersal of the Constituent Assembly and the Red Terror (directed not only at adherents of the Czarist regime but at those of other socialist and democratic parties) had opened the eyes of many radicals who were less wilfully deluded than these two Zionists.
The account in this book of how stubborn error could be persisted in for such long periods of time by responsible leaders—before being finally abandoned because of refutation by reality—may perhaps throw some light on recent difficulties between the leadership of the State of Israel and American Jewry, and may possibly encourage the hope that such problems are not permanent in nature. In short, the interest and importance of the chapter which Marie Syrkin has added in her book to world Jewish history in the 20th century seems to me to commend it to the attention of a much broader public than that afforded by the relatively limited movement which her father founded and of which she is the present editorial spokesman in America.