Intersectionality has posed a challenge for leftist movements attempting to advance the cause of specific groups without losing sight of the intercommunal unity they need to succeed. How can a party of Russian Jewish revolutionaries help us square this circle?

  • Joshua Meyers is an independent researcher with expertise in Jewish history, national identity, and responses to discrimination. Currently, he is the Vice Principle of a High School; prior employments have included a Research Fellowship at Harvard University and a Lectureship at Stanford University. He wrote his dissertation on the Jewish Labor Bund during the Russian Revolution of 1917 at Stanford University.

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.

Wahl­plakat des Bunds in Kyiv, 1917. Losung oben: „Dortn, vu mir lebn, dort is undzer land!“, Quelle Wikipedia

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.

Bundist:innen im sibi­ri­schen Exil, 1904, Quelle:

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.

Bund-Demonstration in Russ­land, 1917, Quelle: Wikipedia

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. 

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Mitglie­der­aus­weis des Bund in russi­scher und jiddi­scher Sprache, frühes 20. Jh., Quelle :

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.

  • Joshua Meyers is an independent researcher with expertise in Jewish history, national identity, and responses to discrimination. Currently, he is the Vice Principle of a High School; prior employments have included a Research Fellowship at Harvard University and a Lectureship at Stanford University. He wrote his dissertation on the Jewish Labor Bund during the Russian Revolution of 1917 at Stanford University.