At the Fourth Congress of General Jewish Labor Bund of Lithuania, Poland, and Russia—the largest Jewish labor organization in Imperial Russia and a constituent, indeed, dominant section of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party—in 1901, delegate Mark Liber made a strange statement. “We must be national,” he declared. “Fear of this word is nothing. National is not nationalism.” The formulation is, to be blunt, bizarre. Yet from the perspective of the participants at the congress, the argument was compelling. To them, the distinction between a party that embraced national identity in its ideas and nationalism was clear. By accepting this formulation into the heart of the party’s program in all places the Bund was active, it introduced a new idea that transformed Marxist politics in its time and offers insight regarding our own. Placing a national cause at the center of a class-based movement anticipated questions of intersectionality and identity politics that grip the left today; yet the manner in which they sought to do so offered something resembling a successful resolution, a promise of how a movement dependent on rallying workers of all nations together might organize on the basis of national identity in pursuit of national concerns.
Despite lip service to diversity, much of modern political practice has focused on monolithic institutions. The nation state advanced the ahistorical concept of mono-communal homogenous societies, which has generally been reflected in the politics of those states. Yet the fact remains that all politics are communal, in reflection of the societies that produce them. No matter how American parties, for example, try to argue otherwise, the Democrats are the party of the non-White and college-educated populations, while the Republicans are the party of the White citizen with a high school diploma. Formally recognizing these divisions, however, is seen as a taboo, a breach against the idea that in a modern democracy, inclusivity to all citizens is necessary. And yet these divisions exist. Often, failure to address them only exacerbates the divisions within a society. But the choice does not have to be binary. Our example is the Bund, a party committed fully and simultaneously to both international solidarity and national identity, offering an alternative path toward unity in which diversity is not merely tolerated or paid lip-service to, but fundamentally honored as part of the system.
Revolution and national minorities
In the formative years of Marxist thought—the era covering roughly from the mid- to late-nineteenth century—revolutionary thinkers often assumed politics hinging on national identity to be separate from and even antithetical to class consciousness. The pursuit of national interest was, in the eyes of most Marxists, at best a stage toward the development toward class consciousness. At worst, it was a distraction from that necessary task. Most socialists remained focused on class-based solidarity, the union of workers qua workers, and not the cultivation of competing loyalties such as nationalism.
Among most adherents of the labor movement, this was not a problem, and the early twentieth century saw Social Democracy emerge as a leading idea in much of Europe. And yet, it posed a difficult question for Europe’s minorities. In the belief that class was the only identity that mattered laid an assumption that the various cultures would meld together. However, this assumption favored the larger nations; a small nation would easily assimilate into the larger, but the opposite remained unlikely. Even in a post-national future, some form of German or Russian culture was expected to endure. Even those smaller nations dominant in a clear territory, a region they could call their own—Czechs and Finns, for example—could see a clear path to survival in a world where class had replaced nationality as the basis for identity. But for those nations without a home territory, a status epitomized by Jews, the situation was otherwise. Jews had certainly maintained a distinct culture for centuries without a homeland but did so by creating alternative communal spaces, often in the form of corporate autonomy. The emergence of liberalism and capitalism had already stripped those structures of much of their authority, but now the revolution sought to do away with them completely.
Jews and workers
Jews in Russia were not hermetically sealed off from their neighbors. In the late nineteenth century, however, they were a distinctive community. They had their own language (Yiddish) and religion. Even geographically and economically, they were different—whereas the Russian Empire was predominantly rural and agrarian, Jews were largely urban, concentrated in petty trade and cottage industries. Even to the extent cities were mixed, their neighborhoods, generally, were less so. Yet as a further complication, Jews in Russia—like elsewhere in the world—lacked a distinct region. The Pale of Settlement had limited Jewish residency, yet even within its sprawling confines (the Pale today would approximately encompass Belarus, Lithuania, much of Ukraine and Poland, and portions of Latvia, equaling 1,224,008 sq km) Jews were only ~10% of the population. Thought they might be the dominant population in various neighborhoods, towns, and even the occasional city, there was no corner of the empire they could call their own.
They were also downwardly mobile. Prior to 1861, the Jews of Poland and the Russian Empire had occupied a niche between the aristocracy and peasantry, working as artisans, merchants, and administrators. The second half of the 19thcentury saw that come to an end. The abolition of serfdom in 1861 erased the need for an intermediary class between serfs and aristocracy, while the industrialization of Russia reduced the need for local artisans. Elsewhere in Europe, Jews had navigated by end of feudalism and rise of industry and capitalism by entering the professional classes, the financial sector, and other new spheres of the economy that flourished in the post-feudal era. Russia, however, was hesitant to allow them to do so, limiting Jewish access to the education and licensing needed to enter these spheres while maintaining residency laws that limited their ability to live in many of the larger cities, including many of those where the newer arenas of the economy were growing. Though Russian Jewry remained culturally vibrant during the second half of the nineteenth century, that vibrancy existed against the backdrop of profound insecurity.
Unsurprisingly, Jews began to lose faith in Russia. The best-known political movement to emerge were the Zionists, committed to the idea that the Jewish future lay abroad. Though Bundists in the post-war would claim otherwise, the fact remains that the Zionist movement dominated Jewish politics in Eastern Europe from its origins in the 1880s through the Holocaust. Yet it did not enjoy a monopoly. Alongside it was a potent revolutionary movement, one that saw the Jewish future as lying in Russia, but only after the complete transformation of that land through revolution.
The Bund, founded in 1897, was the largest of these Jewish revolutionary groups. It was, at first, not especially interested in Jewish national culture. Most of the Bund’s founders preferred Russian to Yiddish. But they did understand that Jewish workers had unique needs, that they required propaganda and agitation materials to be written in Yiddish as opposed to Russian and that Jewish workers tended to concentrate in small cottage workshops as opposed to large factories. Importantly, the Bund also realized that in Russia, Jewish workers suffered oppression both as workers and as Jews. To liberate them only as workers but not as Jews would leave them exposed to the predations of antisemitism, constituting little liberation at all. This was especially pertinent in the Russian Empire, where lethal pogroms in Częstochowa in 1902 and Kishinev in 1903 led to the deaths of dozens of Jews. That the pogroms were carried by members of the working classes was especially jarring for the Bund, demonstrating that Russia’s proletariat—and by extension any future proletarian state—might not end antisemitism in Russia, but rather perpetuate it. Therefore, some sort of organized Jewish presence, it seemed, was needed to lead Jewish workers as workers against capitalist exploitation and as Jews against antisemitic oppression.
The embrace of national politics was not simple. Many in the Bund were, as any good Marxist ought to have been, discomforted by any politics that might distract from class consciousness. Specifically, many feared that the national consciousness of the Jewish proletariat in Russia was already strong, and that any gesture toward national politics would lead workers toward Zionism. Yet other factors proved decisive. Externally, Karl Kautsky proposed dividing the Austrian Empire into eight geographically defined cultural zones; though limited, it marked the first major recognition that national culture could be accommodated by the revolutionary movement. Though national ideas were already present to an extent in the Bund, Kautsky and the Austrian Marxists provided a rigorous theoretical framework articulating how national ideas could be accommodated by the Revolution. Moreover, unlike Kautsky, the Bund recognized that the rights of nations were not contingent on geography. Not only did it embrace that Jews were entitled to use Yiddish as a national language, but that the state had an obligation to protect the language by providing Yiddish schools and cultural institutions while ensuring that Jews could use Yiddish in the public and civic spheres.
Against this backdrop, Liber’s phrasing becomes clear. Though the party had little interest in advancing nationalism—i.e. national dominance or separatism—it was committed to the idea that the revolution had to account for national identity, that workers of different nations had different needs that had to be accounted for in order to mobilize them as part of a larger movement. The Bund’s interest was a peculiar form of federalism predicated on both territorial and national divisions. It was not a compromise between class and national consciousness intended to incorporate national identity into a transnational movement. Rather than seeking the erasure of nations, it sought a fraternal bond between them. The Bund proposed that the Russian Empire—and potentially other countries as well—be reconstructed as a federal union of worker ruled national republics, where those nations without a clear territorial homeland (the Jews) or members of nations with a homeland living outside their “core” territory (Poles in Belarus, Russians in Ukraine) would enjoy broad cultural autonomy. There were limits to the Bund’s demands. They did not lose sight of the need for class unity. Emphatically, the Bund limited its national demands to cultural affairs—schools, newspapers, theater organizations—but firmly rejected political or economic separatism. The goal of the Bund was not independent Jewish sovereignty, but to bring Jews, as a nation, into the revolutionary movement, to treat national identity, properly constructed, as a vehicle for revolution, and not as a barrier.
Identity politics avant la lettre
The Bund did not achieve all that it wanted to. The closest historical example of a socialist federation of nations was the Soviet Union, which few would consider a successful resolution of the national question. Yet the Bund did build a movement that for many years was the largest revolutionary organization in Russia and a leading force on the Jewish street as well. Nations, the Bund understood, exist. They have for a long time and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Yet that existence does not have to pose an obstacle for cooperation or solidarity across communal lines. Societies are by nature mosaics, including a myriad of communities—national, ethnic, racial, religious, sexual, etc—each with their own legitimate needs. The needs of national communities—and for that matter, of gender, sexualities, etc—are not necessarily false consciousnesses, but real needs that must be accounted. In today’s debate on identity politics, this has at times been framed as a problem; tying into fears that accounting for the specific needs of the LGBT community or immigrants might rob progressive movements of their precious unity. Even if these fears may be valid, the dichotomy may be unnecessary. The ideas of the Bund formed in a vanished Europe whose diversity frequently seems to anticipate the future of humanity, a world of multicommunal societies not unlike that destroyed in the catastrophes of the mid-twentieth century. They offer a way that does not fragment humanity; a federalism aimed at uniting the various peoples of the earth by leveraging the solidarity of the working class, for all its complications, offers a distinct path forward.