The Jewish People and The National Question
Jews, Marxism and the Worker's Movement

Morris Winchevsky

The Jewish People and The National Question

First Published: Morning Freiheit, November 30, 1986.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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EDITOR’S NOTE: Morris Winchevsky, (1856-1932), one of the major founders of the Morning Freiheit, was the first Yiddish labor poet and writer and the first Jewish Socialist to advocate Socialist ideas in the Yiddish language. He had traditional religious education in his native Lithuania, but became a Socialist in his early youth in Germany. After being deported from Germany for his political activities Winchevsky emigrated to the United States in 1894 and thereafter edited a Yiddish newspaper, Emess, in Boston, and in 1897 was one of the founders of the Forward which he hoped would become a militant Socialist newspaper. While still a young man Winchevsky was admiringly called the “grandfather” of the Jewish Socialist movement and his poems and essays were enormously popular among the Yiddish speaking emigrants.

Winchevsky has been misrepresented as being solely concerned with general social problems to the exclusion of any Jewish interests. Actually he frequently wrote on Jewish problems, fought for Yiddish and sharply opposed the assimilationist views of contemporary Socialists.

The following excerpts are translated from his essay, “My National Belief,” which he wrote in 1911. This essay was reprinted in Volume VII of “The Selected Works of Morris Winchevsky” which the Morning Freiheit published in 1927.

* * *

I clearly envision a fraternal, international mankind in which each people will have its place, each nationality the opportunity to further develop in accord with its specific peculiarity, its. history and cultural strivings.

I perceive the national individuality precisely in this fraternity. I see in it the greatest expression for that which is specific in each, just as one can observe the most perfect rose or most perfect lily there where the roots find equally, in their blossoming and maturing . . . in the course of time the specific peculiarity of even small nations, as in Scandinavia, becomes more pronounced and expresses itself in a Brandes in Denmark, an Ibsen in Norway and a Strindberg in Sweden. (The fact that Brandes is of Jewish origin does not concern us in this instance.) This specific peculiarity leads to a more defined, more enhanced and clearly formed national personality.

Even here in America or in Southern Europe or in the supposed international kingdom of Austria, the national individuality becomes greater and more pronounced as more people are able to read the various literatures and as more people are able to read the various literatures and as more people are able to create in these literatures or help broaden and elevate them. And as the number of new readers is continually growing and with it the number of new; writers, so every new Ibsen, every new Turgenev, every new Maupassant reinforces his nationality and becomes a new star in the national firmament.

And not only is the specific peculiarity of each nationality created in its literature, but there is a further development of the national drama, the national opera, the national art and the national absorption of each people in its past, its history, its origin.

And if this is apparent in the case of nations which stem from one race, if there is a further defining of themselves and a differentiation of peoples of the same Slavic, Latin, Germanic and Celtic races; if the growth of the national literature, of the national music, of the national history, in brief, the national culture establishes ever more clearly and distinctly the national character of these nationalities, this is also surely true of the Jewish people.

By dwelling together in one area and under the same conditions, perhaps with children attending the same schools, Italians, Spaniards and French, all of one origin, of the same race, can to a certain extent mix, merge and diffuse one among the others.

This can even happen with us Jews dispersed as we are among various peoples . . . This may happen. It has happened in the past and will certainly happen in the future.

However, neither mixed marriages nor mass conversions nor exterminations, as sometimes happens to us, can cause the disappearance of more than a part of the people.

Had it not been for conversions to other religions and the intermixing without conversions it is possible there might now be not twelve million Jews, but sixty million or more. It can also be imagined that of the present twelve million (in 1911) there may through intermixing, with or without conversions, remain six million. All this is probably, but it is definitely impossible that the people will disappear entirely.


Thus the question remains: is it desirable that there be such a people as the Jewish people in the world?

To this is not necessary to say more than these words:

If the future of mankind entailed, and this was once dreamed of in our ranks, a general merging of all the peoples, a mankind of one language, of one nation, of one race, then it might perhaps be no more than right that we Jews, who almost take the lead, shall go along in this as well. Then it would perhaps be desirable that we be the first to leap alive into the melting pot.

If however, as I have shown here, the process of humanity’s development is in the opposite direction and Jaures grandchildren will be no less French, if Bebel’s children’s children will be no less, but more German, if Turati’s coming generations will be more Italian and Plekhanov’s much, much more Russian, then it seems to me no more than just that our people shall for the present remain Jews.

Imagine a French or Russian writer, or a writer of any other nationality who first has to explain that his being French or Russian or anything else is not an obstacle to the internationalism of his Socialism!

In my experience of hearing and reading the speeches of Socialist labor leaders and theoreticians I recall only a single instance where it was necessary for anyone to make such an explanation. This was August Bebel’s address to the Berlin students, “Is the International Opposed to the Nationality,” in December 1897.

Not only is the nationality not opposed to internationalism, Bebel explained, but internationalism is not opposed to the nationality. In other words, Germans may remain Germans if for no other reason than that is what they are. What has to be made clear is that no international Socialism can in any way have any objection to that.

One must laugh out of desperation in order to have to say that a Jew may remain a Jew and feel this statement is not as self-evident as it would be to say, for example, that the sun and the moon aren’t lamps hanging from the sky and have no connection with the Standard Oil Company . . .

In our Socialist circles we must become accustomed to link the propaganda of Socialism, the advocacy of the great ideal for humanity, with everything that has a direct or indirect bearing to it in our own history and in our own traditions.

Socialism does not request the destruction of the German or French nations upon its altar; it therefore cannot make this request of the Jews and it also doesn’t.

(Transl. by S.R.)