First Published: Morning Freiheit, January 20, 1985.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Editor’s Note: The following article appeared originally in the journal, “Soviet Jewish Affairs ” (Vol. 11, No. 2, 1981) under the title, “A Travesty of History.” This journal is issued by the Institute of Jewish Affairs of the World Jewish Congress in London.
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Yu. I. Shestak, Borba bolshevistskoy partii protiv natsionalizma opportunizma Bunda (The Struggle of the Bolshevik Party against the Nationalism and Opportunism of the Bund). Moscow: Politizdat, 1980. 111 pp.
How is it possible, we may ask, to publish a book, as Politizdat has done in 42,000 copies, that purports to be an account of the relations between the Bund and the Bolsheviks–or, as the title has it, the struggle of the Bolsheviks against the nationalism and opportunism of the Bund–without so much as mentioning, let alone consulting, the Bund Archives in New York?
Not one Yiddish or English-language source is referred to and, of the substantial volume of documentary and memoir literature published in the 1920s in Russian, Shestak has taken a minimum of notice only of Rafes, Agursky, and Bukhbinder, of whom only the last seems to have had no particular axe to grind.
Even Bolshevik memoirs have been neglected, and the press of the time, whether Bundist or not, appears in a mere handful of references. With depressing predictability, Shestak’s first reference is to Marx, followed by Lenin, who also dominates the bulk of the material in the book. The very last reference comes, with reassuring timeliness, from L.I. Brezhnev, speaking at the 25th CPSU Congress.
Given this approach, it is hardly surprising that Shestak makes not the slightest attempt to explore, let alone understand, the Bund’s position.
His failure, and necessarily that of Soviet historiography in general, is that he does not recognize that the Bund’s conflict with the Bolsheviks arose from the fact that the Bund concluded–how reluctantly is not discussed–that a wide gap existed between the Jewish workers and the Russian workers, and that it tried to make this vice into a virtue by imbuing the Jewish workers with feelings of socialist internationalism, while at the same time helping them to organize for their own salvation in Russia.
The Bolsheviks, and not Lenin alone, were not at first ready to accommodate any form of national expression within their ideological or organizational framework, if it could be avoided. In the case of most of the national minorities in any way involved with the RSDRP in the early years, at least until the 1905 events, little more than lip-service was required of the Russian party on the question of national and cultural rights.
The case of the Bund was uniquely different, for a number of reasons. One reason was the great weight of the Bund in the revolutionary movement of the Russian Empire. Another was the fact that many of the Empire’s Jewish revolutionaries had found their actual habitat not in the Bund but in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the ’Russian’ revolutionary movement of the time, and the least hint of reorganizing the party along national lines–and the importance thus implied of the real national divisions among the people–was felt by them as a threat to their self expression. The Bund was thus in an impossible position, trying to counter two powerful and opposing forces which were acting on the Jews during that period: on the one hand, Zionism, which aimed at Jewish separateness and emigration, and, on the other hand, Russification/Leninism, or the pressure to assimilate and integrate.
Shestak presents the Bund’s position as invariably an obstacle to Lenin’s activities, which are themselves presented as synonymous with ’Party history.’ This is, of course, how Party historians must write. But an objective, and useful, study of the conflict between the Bund and Lenin while recognizing the centralizing force of ’internationalism’ among the ’Russian’ Social Democrats, would also take some account of the fact that the Bund had grown in response to the awakening demands of the Jewish workers.
Like other intellectual leaders in other movements at the time, the Bundists no doubt also imposed a certain shape and instilled certain ideas; however, to ignore the internal dynamics of Jewish life around the turn of the century, to mention Zionism only as a label for ’bourgeois nationalism’–itself merely a label– to pass over the question of emigration, the influences of economic change, and indeed, the conflicts within the Bund itself on all these and other questions, is to present a travesty of history.
Quoting a contemporary comment by Jabotinsky, who rejoiced at the Bund’s fight for the special interests of the Jewish workers and who welcomed the furore raised over the question of national organization, Shestak remarks that the Bund’s exit from the Russian Social Democratic Party in 1903 played into the hands of the class enemy. By this simple formula he demonstrates official hostility to the Jewish struggle for national liberation, a struggle which for any other oppressed people of the Tsarist Empire was the legitimate expression of the desire for self-determination.
Moreover, he invokes an early attack by Lenin on the Bund’s demand for organizational independence so as to show that this was no more than a device for seizing the Zionist idea of a Jewish nation.
The question of whether the Jews were a nation or not was, of course, hotly debated at that time (not that Shestak seems aware of this), and the solution favored by the Russian (and Jewish non-Bundist) Marxists was the fusion of the Jews with the rest of the population, i.e. with the host population.
If it is permitted to condemn the theory of national-cultural autonomy as ’notorious,’ as Shestak does, it should surely be explained to us how it was any more likely to separate the workers of different nationalities than the theory and practice of territorial autonomy. After over 60 years of Soviet nationality policy, how much closer, for instance, are the Armenian workers to the Latvian workers?
No doubt, Shestak is on firm ground in his repeated allegation that the Bund, especially its intellectual leadership, expressed a separatist tendency and sought always to emphasize the special problems of the Jews and their struggle within the general revolutionary movement and the social democratic party. On the other hand, it is worth noting that in no other political arena in Russia did a Jewish organization attempt to form an integrated structural relationship with a non-Jewish one, before, that is, the early years of the Bolshevik regime.
It is pertinent, therefore, to wonder whether the initial phase of Russian-Jewish activity was not Utopian in its aspirations. In view of the later experiences of all the parties concerned–and certainly of the Bund itself–it is clear that Lenin’s emergence rendered any lasting compromise unlikely. Even the watered-down Bundism of the early 1920s proved illusory in the face of Soviet ’internationalism.’
Soviet official attitudes, at least to the extent that they are reflected in the sort of publication we are concerned with here, seem to be fixed on the notion that any expression of Jewish interest that is not aimed at submerging Jewish individuality in something conceived as Soviet national character, is anti-Leninist and hence must be attacked. This makes an exhaustive consultation of sources frankly unnecessary and leaves no room whatever for legitimate intellectual curiosity, which ought to be the essence of historical enquiry.
(Translated by I. Malenky)