Jewish Socialism in Russia

The organization and development of the Bund, the General Union of Jewish Workers.

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With modernization came industrialization, a system of production that created whole new kinds of work and attitudes about it. Socialism, the theory of social organization in which the means of production and distribution of goods are owned and controlled collectively, emerged in part as a response to this new working world. In Russia, however, among the impoverished, urbanized Jews of the Pale of Settlement, socialism was seen as more than just an economic alternative, it represented a possible solution to the Jewish problem. Historian Howard Sachar wrote that socialism was “the panacea for the nightmare of czarist oppression; its program for reconstructing society from top to bottom appeared far more thoroughgoing than staid liberalism, and far more applicable than agrarian populism to the needs of the harassed Jewish working classes.” The following article explores the emergence of Jewish socialism in Russia. It is reprinted with permission from A History of the Jewish People, edited by H.H. Ben-Sasson and published by Dvir Publishing House.

Organization of the Bund

The idea that Jews in general and Jewish workers in particular had their own special interests and were therefore in need of a separate organization to achieve their aims, spread rapidly among the active members of Jewish workers’ movement. After various deliberations, representatives of Jewish socialist circles met in Vilna in October 1897 and founded the General Union of Jewish Workers in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia, known in Yiddish as Der Bund.

The Bund did not regard itself solely as a political party and devoted a considerable part of its activity to the trade-union struggle of the workers. It also drew its main strength from the trade unions established in the various branches. It therefore did not define its organizational nature in a clear cut fashion. Its political program, as formulated at the first gathering, regarded war on tsarist autocracy as the main objective.

The Bund did not consider itself a separate party, but rather part of Russian social democracy, which was maintained in the form of scattered groups and associations. Because of its relative strength, the Bund played an important part in the establishment of the All-Russian Social Democratic Party in March 1898. It is no coincidence that the first conference of this party was convened in Minsk, a Pale of Settlement town in which the Bund operated, and the latter placed an illegal printing press at the disposal of the party. It was agreed upon at the conference that the Bund would enter the party as an autonomous organization, independent on all questions relating to the Jewish working class.

The fact that the police succeeded in arresting a central committee of the new party and a majority of the Bund “activists” shortly after the conference did not affect the activities of the Bund: its influence spread rapidly among Jewish workers. It increased particularly after one of its members, Hirsch Lekert, made an attempt upon the life of the Vilna provincial governor, who had ordered the whipping of Jewish workers for participation in the 1902 May Day demonstrations. Lekert was executed and became the martyr of the movement. Although the Bund was basically opposed to individual terror as a weapon in the political struggle--in accordance with Marxist theory--Bundists leaders endeavored to justify Lekert’s action because of the widespread public response.

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Historian Shmuel Ettinger was the head of the Dinur Center for Research in Jewish History at Hebrew University until his death in 1998.