First Published: Jewish Life, February 1957.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Editors, JEWISH LIFE:
The letter of Sid Resnick in the Jan. issue on the problem of Soviet Jews raised some interesting questions. One point in particular intrigued me, perhaps because I disagreed with it so promptly.
Mr. Resnick asks: “From the vantage point of today, can one still completely disagree with the old Bundist principle that the Jewish working class required its own socialist party to protect its interests as a national minority and its right for cultural expression? .. . In the light of today was the Bundist position completely without merit?”
It is unfortunate that so little material is available in English on the Bund, which was an important development in Jewish life in the past 60 years. The English speaking Jew of the left knows about the Bund perhaps only from Lenin’s Critical Remarks on the National Question and Stalin’s Marxism and the National Question, both of them first published in 1913. Most of the original source material is in Yiddish and Russian. A few references in English by non-left purees are the article, “Bund,” in Universal Jewish Encyclopedia; “The Bund,” by J. Hodess, Jewish Review (London), no. 4, 1933, pp. 48-56; and “Arkady Kremer, Vladimir Medem and the Ideology of the Jewish ’Bund,’” by Koppel S. Pinson, Jewish Social Studies, vol. 7, 1945, pp. 233-264.
The Bund (full name, General Jewish Workers’ Union of Lithuania, Poland and Russia) was founded in 1897 (the same year as the first World Zionist Congress) before the Russian socialist movement established its political party, the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. The Bund was in fact one of groups that founded this party and was an affiliate for a time after the formation. At first the Bund was largely the channel for conveying to the Yiddish speaking Russian masses the program of social justice and national equality of all peoples and of socialism. As Hodess remarks, it was in its first few years “an auxiliary socialist wing using Yiddish to disseminate” socialism.
After the Kishinev pogroms in 1903, it was the Bund which led in organizing the heroic “self-defense” groups which saved many Jews from the pogromists. (It is an interesting, little known fact that in his youth Nikita Khrushchev, though a non-Jew, fought in a self-defense group in Mariupol in 1913 and was even injured in a skirmish with pogromists. (review of Khrushchev of the Ukraine, by Victor Alexandrov, in London Jewish Chronicle, Jan. 18).)
But Jewish nationalism developed early in the Bund, which split with the Russian Social Democratic Party over its demand that it remain an “autonomous” affiliate of the party. The Bund radically differed from the party with regard to the national question. While the party projected national self-determination as the solution of this question, the Bund advocated that the Jews should be organized and administered on the basis of “cultural-social J autonomy” regardless of territorial location of the Jews.
Thus the social, cultural and political life of the Jews, who did not live in a compact territory but were scattered over Russia, were to be organized and led only on the basis of their Jewish identity. One consequence of the Bund’s approach was to disunite the Jewish from non-Jewish workers and even at times to clash with them. Americans can understand the effect of the Bund’s separatist policy by comparing it with the prospect of Negroes advocating a separate Negro political party in our country. No less than Negro-white unity is necessary here was Jewish-non-Jewish unity essential for East European Jews.
The ideological conflict of the Bund with the Russian Social Democratic Party is too involved to go into here. I shall limit myself to Mr. Resnick’s question: was the Bund not right in holding that the Jews needed a separate party to protect Jewish interests in view of the deep-seated nature of anti-Semitism?
A convincing answer to this question, it seems to me, was given by Stalin in his Marxism and the National Question. It is paradoxical, in view of Stalin’s own catastrophic errors on the national question, that he should have perceived in 1934 that “the survivals of capitalism in the minds of men are much more tenacious in the sphere of the national question than in any other sphere” (Marxism and the National and Colonial Question, New York (no date), page 267).
In Section V, “The Bund and its Nationalism and Separatism,” of his essay Stalin points out that the welfare of the Jews or any other national minority or oppressed nation is decisively determined by the regime under which it lives.
Since Stalin wrote this in 1913, his view has, it seems to me, been confirmed. A few years after the Revolution many leaders and members of the Bund joined the Russian Communist Party because they saw no further need for their organization. It should be kept in mind that the Bund offered “social-cultural autonomy” as the solution of the Jewish question. Yet what happened in the Soviet Union proves that this is no solution. Would the Jews of the Soviet Union have had any guarantee that the crimes committed in 1948-1953, for instance, would have been averted if there had been a Bundist party? The Stalin regime could have swept aside such a party or specific Jewish political group as it did the whole structure of Soviet Jewish institutions. The security and national rights of the Jewish people in the Soviet Union or any place else depends on the basic principles on which the regime in question operates. Jewish welfare then rests in the creation of a government that respects its rights.
It was the creation of a regime that would insure equality for all nations and nationalities that was one of the main aims of the Russian Social Democratic Party. A separatist Jewish party was fought against because it would hamper the realization of such a regime. The Bund was a nationalistic party in the sense that its isolated concern for the Jews instead of fusion with the united party whose aim was to achieve equality for all national minorities and nations militated against realization of equality for Jews.
The source of the problem of Jews in the Soviet Union was not the absence of a party which guarded those rights, but rather the gross violation of the principles of the national question that Lenin and even Stalin in his earlier years fought so hard to establish. For their view of the national question called for a guarantee of equal rights for all nations and nationalities. The “Declaration of the Rights of Nationalities in Russia,” issued on Nov. 15, 1917 and signed by Lenin and Stalin, affirmed as basic principles, among others, “The removal of every and any national and national-religious privilege and restriction” and “The free development of the national minorities and ethnographic groups within the confines of Russia.” The rights of Soviet Jews would have been best protected by a principled battle for adherence to the essentials of the national question as expressed in such documents.
It should be clear that, as I see it, opposition to the Bund’s program by no means implies that there should not be nation-wide or all-Union organizations of Jews in the Soviet Union today. Such organizations would operate within the framework of the Soviet system like any other analogous group such as a union of the writers or cultural group of any nationality. The difference between such an organization and the “social-cultural autonomy” advocated by the Bund is that they offered this as the solution of the Jewish question as a whole. Such a solution in the Soviet Union is possible only if the basic theory of national equality followed in the early years of the Soviet regime is realized for the Jews.