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The Oath: The Story of the Jewish Bund

In the early twentieth century, the largest socialist organization in Russia was the Jewish Bund, numbering tens of thousands, who were willing to fight, arms in hand, for the liberation of Jews. While the Bund fostered the national identity and dignity of Russian Jews, they were also committed Marxists, who viewed Jewish emancipation as intimately linked to a worldwide socialist revolution.

July 03, 2017

Jewish Bund Demonstration during the Russian Revolution of 1917

We swear an endless loyalty to the Bund.
Only it can free the slaves now.
The red flag is high and wide.
It waves in anger, it is red with blood!
Swear an oath of life and death!

- Di Shvue

Pale of Settlement

By 1914, half of the world’s Jews—numbering close to 6 million—were located inside the Russian Empire. The Tsarist state ruled many foreign nationalities and minorities, who could not be rapidly assimilated or completely subjugated. The Tsarist solution was to confine the Jewish population to live in the Pale of Settlement, consisting of the provinces of Poland and fifteen provinces of western Ukraine, Belorussia and Lithuania. Ancient and obstructionist Jewish customs held sway in the ghettoes of the Pale. The Jews found themselves at the bottom of Russian hierarchy, subjected to anti-Semitic legislation that limited what jobs were open to them, forbade them from cultivating land in the Pale, forced to pay special taxes, and placed quotas restricting their admittance into universities. Tsarist legislation differentiated the Jews from non-Jews throughout the Empire, many of whom hated and mistrusted Jews as parasites and usurers.

The Jews did not simply face fear and discrimination, but they were subjected to violence. After the assassination of Alexander II by the People’s Will in 1881, Jews were widely blamed for his death. A wave of pogroms spread across 200 towns where large numbers of Jews were concentrated in the Ukraine and Moldova [1]. The authorities were slow to act and few perpetrators were ever brought to trial, let alone convicted. The new Tsar, Alexander III, ended his father’s liberal reforms and tightened anti-Semitic laws.

Increasingly, capitalist modernization was making inroads and changing the world of Russian Jews. Capitalism brought the Jews together in cities. In 1914, Jews constituted only 11 percent of the population of Pale, but they composed 40 percent of its urban population. Only 3 percent of Jews worked in agriculture, while 30 percent worked in petty commerce. Social differentiation widened in Jewish communities between employers and employees. While 600,000 Jews were workers, only 10 percent labored in factories and the rest were artisans in small workshops. Jews remained impoverished, and at least 30 percent relied on Jewish welfare agencies for assistance [2]. Urbanization created a new Jewish identity with a shared language (95 percent spoke Yiddish), culture, and religious traditions.

Many Jews emigrated to Western Europe or the United States to escape economic misery and pogroms. Others sought to escape their parochial and backward horizons by embracing modern ideas. This movement, the Haskalah, drew upon the Enlightenment to modernize Jewish life. The movement was resisted by orthodox leaders, who feared the Haskalah’s assimilationist and secular tendencies. During the reign of Alexander II, education quotas were slightly relaxed and many young Jews gained a secular education and a sense of the wider world. This modern Jewish intelligentsia, “adopted Russian, and its cultural reference points included, besides Marx and Darwin, Herzen and Cernicevskij.” [3] While initially assimilationist, Tsarist oppression and legal discrimination blocked their path. The new intelligentsia drew from a distinct culture and literature with Yiddish as its form of expression. The Yiddish-speaking intelligentsia radicalized, and many were drawn into the revolutionary underground. Their choices for allegiance there were between either the Populists or the working class.

The Movement

Some Jewish intellectuals showed sympathy for the Populists in their struggle against Tsarism, but most stayed at a distance. For one, the Populists praised the 1881 pogroms, stating: “You have begun to rebel against the Jews. You have done well. Soon the revolt will be taken across all of Russia against the Tsar, the pany [landowning gentry], the Jews.” [4] Although, the Populists claimed to speak and act on behalf on the “people,” by both law and tradition, the Jews were not part of the “people.” As one Jewish populist admitted: “I did not know the Russian people, because I was born and grew up in a town without ever having seen a village in my life. Apart from this, I was foreign to the Russian people by race and blood. I knew very little of Russian history and, frankly speaking, I did not like it.” [5]

By contrast, the Jewish working class provided a moral stable social anchor for the intelligentsia. This enabled the growing Jewish social democracy to take the lead in struggle compared to their counterparts elsewhere in the Empire. In the 1880s, mutual aid groups were formed to support striking workers. Intellectuals formed study circles for workers. In 1896, Jewish social democrats, particularly in Lithuania and Belorussia published, Der Yiddisher Arbeyter (The Yiddish worker), and began systematic agitation amongst the workers. The workers’ movement adopted the language of class and Marxism. For many militants, Marxism provided a theory of both emancipation and modernity. According to the future Menshevik leader, Julius Martov: "The [Communist] Manifesto dazzled me with its picture of a mighty revolutionary party which having absorbed all the suffering of the labouring classes would proceed to destroy the old world and conquer dictatorial power for the toilers." [6]

In October 1897, the General Jewish Labour Bund in Russia and Poland (henceforth the Bund) was formally created in Vilnius. The Bund’s goal was the unification of all Jewish workers within the Russian Empire into a single socialist party allied to the wider revolutionary movement. In pursuit of that, the Bund organized the founding congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) in 1898. The Bund also printed social democratic publications and distributed them to industrial centers outside of the Pale. While the rest of the RSDLP was only weakly connected with the proletariat, the Bund openly organized May Day rallies in 1899 [7]. The Bund grew rapidly from 5,600 members in 1900; 30,000 members in 1903, and 35,000 in 1905. By contrast, the rest of the RSDLP, including Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, numbered only 8,400 members at the beginning of 1905. [8]

In order for the Bund to undertake its work, they needed to address Jewish workers in their own language and take account of their unique conditions. As the Bund grew, their agitation fostered a sense of Jewish national and cultural identity. According to Enzo Traverso, in 1905, “the Bund was no longer only a workers’ party; it had also become a national party. Its strength and originality lay in the search for a dialectical synthesis between proletarian internationalism and the defense of an oppressed national culture.” [9]

The Bund was not the only group who organized amongst the Jews in the Pale. By the late 19th century, a number of Zionist groups had formed. All the Zionists argued that the Jewish nation should emigrate to Palestine to escape from persecution and create their own state. The Bund rejected Zionism as both a utopian and reactionary movement of the petty and middle Jewish bourgeoisie at their Fifth Congress in 1904. At the Bund’s sixth congress, they affirmed the necessity to fight Zionism in “all its forms and nuances.” [10] According to the Bund, the Zionists not only refused to fight anti-Semitism in the diaspora, but accepted its basic premises that Jews are permanent foreign elements in society. By contrast, the Bund believed in fighting both national oppression and anti-Semitism with the international unity of the working class.

The RSDLP and National Autonomy

Until 1903, the Bund was recognized as the representative of Jewish workers in the RSDLP. On the surface, both the Bund and the Iskra Group, led by Lenin, Plekhanov and Martov, were committed to constructing workers’ unity that transcended national divisions. Surface agreement hid deeper disagreements. The Bund presented its own conditions for admission into the party: recognition of the Bund as the sole representative of the Jewish workers and, secondly, for the party to be organized as a federation of national parties along the Austrian model. Iskra opposed the Bund’s position on a federated party. The Iskraists were determined to create a revolutionary organization of professional revolutionaries to combat the Autocracy. The Bund’s organizational federalism posed the danger of fragmenting the RSDLP that would forestall unity of the working class across Russia.

Furthermore, the Iskraists, whoincluded assimilated Jewish Marxists such as Martov, Axelrod, Deutsch and Trotsky, opposed the Bund no less fiercely. The Bund program called for Jewish national and cultural autonomy in Russia. Trotsky viewed the Bund as full of nationalist deviations. According to Isaac Deutscher, Trotsky “saw the solution of the Jewish problem not in the formation of a Jewish state, still less in the formation of Jewish states within the non-Jewish ones, but in a consistently internationalist reshaping of society. The premise for this was mutual unreserved confidence between Jews and non-Jews, whether in the party or in the state.” [11] At the RSDLP’s Second Congress in 1903, the Bund’s positions were overwhelmingly rejected by the rest of the party. They walked out. One Bundist leader, Vladimir Medem, wrote later in his memoirs that the split “was a genuine catastrophe – this breaking of the threads that had connected the Russian and Jewish proletariat. To us, it seemed as though a piece of flesh had been torn from a living body.” [12]

In a number of works, Medem elaborated the Bundist position on nationalism and Jewish national autonomy. He argued that the liberation struggle of the oppressed nations appeared at the beginning as demands for language and culture that Marxists must support. Secondly, he conceived of Jewish national-autonomy not as something territorial, but educational and cultural. While the Bund recognized the national character of Jewish culture, they remained hostile to all forms of nationalism.

In contrast to the Marxist theory orthodoxy on assimiliation, Medem developed an idea of “national neturalism” that refused to make any predictions on the future of the Jews: “we are neutral...We are not against assimilationism, we are against assimilationism, against assimilation as a goal.” [13] Medem’s neutralism viewed history as a blind process and it proved unsustainable for the Bund, whose activity precluded assimilation by contributing to creating a distinctive Jewish culture and language.

1905 Revolution

Like other revolutionary parties, the Bund welcomed the outbreak of the 1905 Revolution. Bundist leader, Raphael Abramovitch wrote shortly after Bloody Sunday: “The great day has come! The revolution has come! It began in St. Petersburg and will set the whole country on fire with its flame. Either we will gain our freedom or we will die!” [14] The Bund and the RSDLP united around demands for a democratic republic, 8 hour day, the right to education in one’s own language, and an end to the Autocracy. In 1905, the Bund organized general strikes throughout the Pale, often working alongside other social democratic groups. The Bund believed that the Tsar could only be overthrown through an armed workers’ insurrection and that this required broadening the revolutionary movement, splitting the army, and unity of the RSDLP.

The procuring of arms was also a burning necessity for other reasons, too. Jews throughout Russia were facing an onslaught of anti-Semitic violence as shown most notoriously by the Kishinev pogrom in 1903, which shocked the world. In October 1905, hundreds of pogroms were organized in southwestern Russia and 400 Jews were killed in Odessa. These pogroms of 1905 were different in being carried out by the Black Hundreds. The Black Hundreds were sponsored and blessed by the Tsar, who believed the Jews were the masterminds behind revolutionary disturbances. Since 1902, the Bund advocated that Jewish armed defense to their oppressors. Bundist self-defense squads formed across the Pale, arming themselves with guns, knives and axes. Bundist self-defense appealed not just to to national dignity, but emphasized the class nature of resistance: “of all strata of the Jewish population, only the proletariat fighting under the flag of Social Democracy represents a force capable of undertaking effective resistance to the mob the government sets on the Jews.” [15] To that end, the Bund collaborated with other social democrats and non-Jewish workers to fight off pogromists, most notably in Gomel in August 1903. [16]

The Bund partook in the general strike of October 1905 that caused the Tsar to grant a parliament known as the Duma. The Bund believed that these concessions proved that Tsarism was on its last legs. However, this proved to be the hightide of the revolutionary movement and political activity ebbed over the next two years. In 1905, the Bund reached the peak of its influence and hegemony among the Jewish proletariat. Despite comprising only 4 percent of the population, they accounted for 37 percent of those arrested for political offenses during the revolution—demonstrating the heroism of Jewish militants. [17]

In 1906, the Bund was finally admitted to the RSDLP, who now possessed a more federal structure and accepted their claim to exclusively represent Jewish workers. Despite the Mensheviks sponsoring their entrance into the party, the Bund initially stood closer to the Bolsheviks on questions such as boycotting the Duma. During the coming years, the Bund moved closer to the Mensheviks. In 1912, when the RSDLP formally split into separate Bolshevik and Menshevik organizations, the Bund aligned with the latter.

Crossroads

During World War I, the Bund refused to support the Tsarist war effort. Rather, they joined with the majority of Russian social democrats in opposed the war and approved the anti-war manifestos of Zimmerwald in 1915 and Kienthal in 1916. After Germany occupied Poland in 1914, contact between the Russian and Polish sections of the Bund became increasingly difficult. In December 1917, a separate Polish Bund was officially formed that would last until 1948.

The Bund welcomed the February Revolution of 1917 that emancipated all Russian Jews and abolished the Pale of Settlement. The path had now seemingly been cleared for Jews to be assimilated into wider Russian society. The Bund, now numbering 33,000 strong, supported the new Provisional Government in alliance with the Mensheviks. After the Bolshevik Revolution, the Bund’s Eighth Congress in December 1918 condemned it as a coup.

What changed Bundist ambivalence into support for the Bolsheviks was the Civil War. The White Armies of Wrangel, Denikin, Yudenich, and Kolchak were united in their vision of restoring “Russia Great, United, and Indivisible,” and saw the Jews as the cause of Bolshevism. To that end, the White Armies physically exterminated Jews en masse in pogroms that cost between 60,000 and 150,000 lives [18]. By contrast, the Red Army was led by Leon Trotsky and the Soviet Republic emancipated Jews [19]. Although anti-Semitic acts were committed by the Red Army, these were not official policy and condemned at the highest levels of government. In 1920, the Bund could no longer stand aloof and, at its Twelfth Conference, split into a communist majority (who soon after fused with the Bolsheviks) and an oppositional social democratic that lasted until the early 1920s.

Despite the prominence of assimilated Jews such as Trotsky, Sverdlov, Zinoviev and Kamenev in the ranks of the Bolsheviks, there were few Jews in the party. Fomrer Bundists served as intermediaries between the Soviet Republic and the Jewish population by staffing the Jewish section of the Communist Party. The Jewish section was divided between promoting assimilation or promoting a separate Jewish culture. On the one hand, the Soviet Republic needed skilled and educated intellectuals to staff its administrative apparatus, which they found among the formerly persecuted Jews. These efforts accelerated trends toward assimilation. At the same time, the USSR recognized Jews as a national minority and the ex-Bundists promoted Yiddish language, culture and literature. This led to a flourishing of Jewish culture during the 1920s. By the 1930s, the Yiddish Renaissance culture quietly ended with the reassertion of Great Russian nationalism and the snuffing out of all forms of “nationalist deviations.”

The “Non-Jewish” Revolutionaries

At its best, the Bund represented the tradition of those whom Isaac Deutscher described as “non-Jewish Jews” who broke with the narrowness of Judaism and “strove, together with their non-Jewish comrades, for the universal, as against the particularist, and for the internationalist, as against the nationalist, solutions to the problems of their time...” This spirit and perspective enabled the Bund to link together their fight for national dignity of the downtrodden Jewish workers of the Pale to the international socialist revolution.

Notes:

1. Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 81-2.
2. Arno J. Mayer, Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? The ’Final Solution’ in History (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988), 59; Enzo Traverso, The Marxists and the Jewish Question: The History of a Debate, 1843-1943 (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1994), 40.
3. Traverso 1994, 40.
4. Eric Blanc, “Anti-imperial Marxism: Borderland socialists and the evolution 
of Bolshevism on national liberation,” International Socialist Review. http://isreview.org/issue/100/anti-imperial-marxism
5. Traverso 1994, 42.
6. Israel Getzler, Martov: A Political Biography of a Russian Social Democrat (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2003), 9.
7. Henry J. Tobias, The Jewish Bund in Russia: From Its Origins to 1905 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1972), 97.
8. Ibid. 98 and 140; Figes 1996, 141.
9. Traverso 1994, 100.
10. Ibid. 107-8.
11. Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky, 1879-1921 (New York: Verso, 2003), 75.
12. Quoted in Traverso 1994, 99-100.
13. Quoted in ibid. 104.
14. Tobias 1972, 296.
15. Ibid. 226.
16. Ibid. 224 and 229.
17. Traverso 1994, 39.
18. Arno J. Mayer, The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 525.
19. Ibid. 524-525.




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