Jewish Socialism in Russia

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

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National Development of the Bund

The first conference of the Russian Social Democrats proclaimed as part of its program the right of every nation to self-determination, but the Bund, in its early days, did not submit any particular Jewish national demand, with the exception of civil equality. At the third conference, held in Kovno in December 1899, the view was voiced that “national rights," i.e., rights as a group, not only as individuals, should be demanded for the Jews, but this was rejected by most of the participants.

The fourth conference of the Bund (Bialystok, May 1901) was, for many reasons, a milestone in its development. It decided on the intensification of the political struggle, as separate from the economic struggle. But the main turning point was the national question. The conference decided to demand the transformation of Russia into a “federation of nations, each of them complete with complete national autonomy, independent of the territory on which it resides. The conference recognizes the term ‘nation’ also applied to the Jewish people.” But, taking into consideration the conditions prevailing in Russia, the conference did not demand this national autonomy immediately in order to avoid “obscuring the class consciousness of the proletariat.” A resolution was also passed condemning Zionism.

When one of the leaders of the Bund, V. Kossovski, published a pamphlet calling for the organization of the Russian Socialist Democratic Party as a federation of national parties, this idea encountered the vigorous opposition of the main section in this party, which formed around the journal Iskra. At the second congress of the Russian Social Democrats, held in summer 1903, the Bund demanded that its autonomous status be recognized as the “sole representative of the Jewish proletariat." This met with the opposition of the majority, which rejected the federative principles in party organization. The main opponents of the Bund in this matter were the Jewish Social Democrats such a Martoc, Trotsky, and others. (Out of forty-five delegates to the conference, twenty-five were Jewish, including five representatives from the Bund.) The Bund announced its secession from the party, and subsequently, there was increased friction between them and the Social Democrats because of their parallel activities in the Pale of Settlement.

The political activities of the Bund grew in scope and its influence over the Jewish public increased after it began organizing self-defense units in the period of the 1903-1907 pogroms. It played an active part in the 1905 revolution, and at that time the number of its members had reached 35,000. The fourth congress of the Russian Social Democrats agreed to approve the autonomous status of the Bund and to refrain from deciding on the question of the national program. On the basis of this decision, the seventh conference of the Bund (Leipzig, 1906) decided to return to the ranks of the party.

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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.