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The case of the General Union of the Jewish Workers of Russia, Poland and Lithuania

First published in: Controverses, Cahier Thématique No. 1, November 2011.

Bund, S.D.K.P.i.L., S.D.W.P.R.

At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th Century several social-democratic parties shared the influence of the II. International in the eastern zone of Europe: the Bund; the S.D.W.P.R. (Social-Democratic Workers’ Party of Russia, divided into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks since 1903); the S.D.K.P.i.L. (the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania); the P.P.S. (the Polish Socialist Party, whose Leader Pilsudski became an ultra-nationalist); the S.P.D. (Social-Democratic Party of Germany)... In spite of their internationalist references these parties have always been traversed by the “peoples’ right of self-determination”, or “national independence”, or the “cultural autonomy” vindicated by the Jewish revolutionary movement that developed, apart from other sociological characteristics, around the Yiddish language, which had been admitted as a language for propaganda. Nevertheless, one amongst them, the S.D.K.P.i.L. led by Rosa Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches, criticized the old ideas of Marx and Engels and defended an intransigent internationalism, rejecting the struggle for independence of Poland from the Russian empire, whereas the S.D.W.P.R., in particular its Bolshevik fraction under the aegis of Lenin, remained favorable to the classic slogan on the peoples’ right of self-determination, which was defended by leaders of the German S.P.D. like Karl Kautsky.

The foundation of the P.P.S., of the S.D.K.P. and subsequently of the S.D.K.P.i.L.

In 1892 the Polish Socialist Party (P.P.S.) was founded; it subordinated the socialist aims to the national independence of Poland and in the course of time became overtly nationalist. In the following year Rosa Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches jointly founded their party, the Social-Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland, on antinationalist positions that were voiced in its organ Sprawa Robotnicza (The Workers’ Cause). The organization had about two hundred members. Its other co-founders were Julian Marchlewski, who made Rosa’s acquaintance at Warsaw, and Adolf Warszawski (Warski). Stemming from a well-off German-Polish family, Marchlewski had become a revolutionary by pure idealism: at Zurich he obtained a doctorate in law and political sciences. Warszawski was Jewish and had married a Polish woman who gave him many children (Rosa tried to help his family). The four collaborated in an informal way, without a structure or hierarchy. The history of the small group surrounding Rosa Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches is a sequence of long periods of stagnation and rare moments of glory. As the party struggled to unify the Polish and Russian workers, it was never popular in Poland, in spite of the poetical vision of Mickiewicz, according to which Polish and Russians were brothers, and although the group proclaimed itself successor of the party Proletariat . [1] With its leadership in Switzerland and its small group of sympathizers in Poland, reduced by frequent arrests, the party resembled an army of generals without soldiers. It was nevertheless joined by great socialists like Cesaryna Woynarowska, a former member of the party Proletariat, and Felix Dzerzhinsky, who would play an important role in the unification of the Lithuanian and Polish social democrats. In August 1893 Rosa Luxemburg unsuccessfully pleaded for the recognition of the S.D.K.P. at the Zurich Congress of the II. International. Her struggle against the P.P.S. embittered and their ideological divergences revealed themselves as insurmountable: the P.P.S. did not appeal exclusively to the workers, but to “all classes oppressed at the economical level by the bourgeoisie and by Tsarism at the political level: small landowners, peasants, free tenant farmers and the least favored layers of the middle class.” It was nationalist. By contrast, the program of the S.D.K.P. called for a common struggle of the Polish and Russian workers and was not interested in the struggle of Poland to regain its sovereignty. The P.P.S. took refuge in antisemitism by signaling that the Jewish origins of Rosa Luxemburg would make her insensible to the real needs and ambitions of the Polish nation. But the SDKPL was admitted to the London Congress of the II. International in 1896, and fused with the Lithuanian social-democracy in 1900, becoming the S.D.K.P.i.L.. The Amsterdam Congress of August 1904 boasted the prestige of Rosa Luxemburg, who took part with mandates from both the social democratic parties of Germany and of Poland respectively. She participated in two committees: one on the trusts and joblessness, the other on the socialist tactics at the international level. [2] It suffices to see the long list of Russian socialist parties represented at the Paris conference in 1904 to understand why Rosa Luxemburg was opposed to Lenin on the right of the nations to self-determination. The participants were: the Social-Democracy of Lithuania, the Socialist Party of Ukraine, the Socialist-Revolutionary Federation of Georgia, the Social-Democracy of Armenia, the Hromada of Belorussia, and the Revolutionary Federation of Armenia. Without mentioning many other national or ethnic groups of the Russian empire who were absent. Against this dispersal of nationalities, Rosa Luxemburg explained, one should put down one’s stakes on the economic development of capitalism and thereby on the concentration of the proletariat beyond the borders (this was the subject of her thesis on “the industrial development of Poland” within the Russian empire, Zurich, 1898).

After the “bloody Sunday” of January 22nd, 1905, a wave of strikes spread very rapidly over Poland. The S.D.K.P.i.L. membership grew from a few hundreds to two thousand by the end of the year, and achieved the number of thirty thousand in 1906. The P.P.S., in spite of its greater notoriety, hardly exceeded this number; the Bund counted approximately thirty-five thousand members. The three hostile parties disputed their influence on the working masses with each other, and writing was their most efficient weapon. At Krakow the S.D.K.P.i.L. founded another publication: From the battleground. After ten years of semi–withdraw (7)al Jogiches found himself at the heart of the action, responsible for the journals, pamphlets and leaflets, their introduction and their clandestine distribution in Poland annexed by Russia. The position of Jogiches towards the Bund made appear an evident deviation from the political platform he shared with Rosa Luxemburg. The attitude of the latter, which was supported by the direction of the Polish party, was resolutely negative because of the nationalist Jewish ideology of the Bund: “I do not accept any alliance with the Jews” - she wrote to Jogiches in June. “For the same reason you have refused a “maximum” alliance, I refuse in my turn a “minimum” alliance.” Jogiches defied her. It would be erroneous to attribute this defiance to any other reason than his political strategy. The fact that he had cooperated with the future founders of the Bund at Vilnius, and that he had contributed to the emergence of this party without paying attention, in no way determined his politics. His contempt for the position adopted by the other members of the leadership of the S.D.K.P.i.L. was symptomatic for his temper. In the Bund he was looking for an ally against the P.P.S., and he was ready to pay the price for this. At the initiative of the Bund and with the approbation of his party, Jogiches arrived at Warsaw in mid-July 1905 in order to conduct the negotiations He reached an agreement with the Bund on their future cooperation and their mutual support. By consequence, Jogiches was accused to have made excessive concessions by taking a dangerously conciliatory position and by “betraying the interests” of the party. Felix Dzerzhinsky wrote to the foreign commission of the party: “We cannot arrive at an understanding with him. Even during the negotiations with the Bund he has behaved himself in such a scandalous way that it is difficult to believe that he could have gone so far.” In reply Jogiches renounced supervising the publications of the S.D.K.P.i.L.. Rosa Luxemburg had to use all her diplomatic talents in order to straighten out the conflict between the party and Jogiches. No agreement with the Bund was signed, Jogiches revoked his resignation and resumed his activities at Krakow.

The number of battles that Rosa Luxemburg engaged in from 1910 to 1913 suffices to give the measure of her temper. Kautsky and Bebel, Lenin and Radek, German social-democracy and the Social-Democratic Workers’ Party of Russia, her contradictors within Polish social-democracy and the Polish nationalists: she treated every individual and every group who opposed her in a merciless way. The political frictions had led the S.D.K.P.i.L. on the edge of division for years. Albeit disagreeable, these annoyances were only small sins compared to the political differences between Berlin and Warsaw, differences that came to daylight around 1908 and that entailed the split of the S.D.K.P.i.L. in 1912. A commission of the S.D.K.P.i.L. met at Paris in September 1913. The Social-Democratic Workers’ Party of Russia (S.D.W.P.R.), the Bund and the Social-Democracy of Latvia participated at the instruction of the case of Radek. The accusations against him went from a presumed theft of a coat, when he was a student at Krakow, to the abuse of party funds, including that of non-payment of his membership dues. He tried to defend himself in a book with the title My accounts, later rallied to the October Revolution and became the specialist for German affairs of the Bolshevik communist party.

Radek took part in the opposition of the left communists with Bukharin and Ossinski against Lenin (the “separate” peace treaty at Brest-Litovsk; state capitalist measures in April 1918). He met Rosa Luxemburg again in November 1918 in Berlin before the foundation of the Communist Party of Germany (K.P.D.) and before the bloody defeat of the Spartakist revolution, in which she was assassinated by the Freikorps (the armed hand of the staff of the S.P.D. and the Ebert-Noske-Scheidemann government). He announced the nomination of Felix Dzerzhinsky to her (her former co-disciple at the S.D.K.P.i.L.) as leader of the Cheka, the political police of the Soviet power created in December 1917 at Moscow. [3] The news had the effect of a bomb on Rosa, albeit she did not faint.

The foundation of the Bund

After the consecutive partitions of Poland from 1772 to 1795 the Jews of Poland and Lithuania (about a million people) became subjects of the Tsar: little by little they were forbidden to leave a residential area extending from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The Jews called this forced assignation to live in a limited area, the Rayon. The liberal measures that were taken on from 1855 under Alexander II. led them to believe that they were becoming tolerated subjects. Unfortunately the pogrom of Odessa in 1871 unchained a political reaction that persisted until the First World War. The Jews became the scapegoat for the assassination of the Tsar in 1881. In 1897 the first [demographic] statistics worthy of the name were published in the Tsarist Empire: the result gave 126.5 million inhabitants of whom 5,215,805 were Jewish (5% of the population of European Russia, 4,2% of the Empire as a whole). In spite of a massive emigration that fled from the pogroms between 1881 and 1897 (in particular towards the United States), and gave birth to the first Zionist expressions (pamphlet and depart for Palestine), the population had augmented with 22%. A certain assimilation had taken place. Some stereotypes should be discarded: the Jewish professions have always been associated with the clothing industry. In fact, the working class was recruited in very varied corporations like the tanneries and its related branches (leather and shoes), the flower mills and agricultural industries, the oil-mills, wood and the fabrication of furniture, the manufactures of tobacco and cigarettes, mining industry, metallurgy, locksmith, the drying out of swamps, paper mills, the maintenance of roads and slopes, stone masonry, brush-making, weaving...

In spite of the integration with the Russians at the workplace, the Jewish masses underwent periods of joblessness and sometimes lived under miserable conditions (overcrowded dens of Warsaw, Odessa or Łódź). In addition to this distress they were threatened by the antisemitism of the orthodox Christians agitated by Pobiedonostsev, attorney of the Holy Synod, gray eminence of the Tsar. Considered as inferior human beings, the Jews aspired at a veritable status as free men. They wanted to liberate themselves from the yoke of an autocracy that maintained itself in a still semi-feudal society.

From September 25 to September 27 1897 (October 7 – 9, according to our calendar) thirteen delegates of local Jewish socialist groups united in the barn-shed of a little wooden house in a suburb of Vilnius. In this way the Bund came into existence, abbreviation of the General Union of the Jewish workers of Russia and Poland (the word Lithuania was added in 1901), inspired by the example of Ferdinand Lassalle because the term “union” or “league” was much more mobilizing than the word “party”. It was the first organization constituted at the level of Russia. Two periodicals constituted the official organs of the Bund: the Arbeiter Shtime, the organ of the central committee, and the Yiddisher Arbeiter, journal of the committee abroad. Eleven men and two women, five intellectuals and eight workers represented some 3,500 adherers. Kremer, Mutnik and Kossovski represented the intellectuals of Vilnius; Israël Kaplinsky and Hirsch Soroka the Arbeiter Shtime and the Yiddischer Arbeiter; David Katz represented the workers of Vilnius; Berman the groups of Minsk; Hillel Katz-Blum and Rose Grynblat that of Bialystok; Yidel Abramov, Vitebsk; John Mill, Leon Goldman and Maria Jaludsky, Warsaw. [4] In the course of its congresses the Bund put its identity demand on the agenda in order to distinguish itself from the Russian Social-Democracy, but its attachment to the workers’ cause distinguished it from Jewish nationalism that took the form of Zionism. The IV. Congress took place in the last days of May 1901 at Bialystok, as the General Union of the Jewish Workers had manifested itself in the conduct of very combative strikes (about one thousand Bundists had been arrested, detained and deported). But the national question dominated the discussions and the position of Zionism was for the first time extensively debated.

The national question became the object of a “veritable affront” around three tendencies: that of Liber who took up the national thesis defended by Mill at the preceding congress, that of Pavel Rosental, diametrically opposed to the former, and the point of view of Portnoy, half way between Liber and Rosental. Mark Liber, at the time 21 years of age, was born at Vilnius from a family of intellectuals and had received a solid Jewish education. Since his adolescence Liber had been stimulated by his brothers Leon and Boris, his elder brother, who was a militant in the Russian party and a friend of Felix Dzerzhinsky. [5] As a brilliant mind and an excellent orator, Liber was inspired by the theses of the Brünn Congress of the Austrian social-democratic party, defending the idea of a democratic union of the nationalities en Central Europe.

Liber thought that Russia was a similar case. One would have to constitute a federation in which every party disposed of a full autonomy for its national problems, with or without territorial reference. In the short term the Jewish working class could only demand the minimum: the equality of civil rights. But in addition Jewish national autonomy was necessary...

Our thought, which has matured for a long time, is to prepare the proletariat for the demand of its national autonomy, of the development of a national self-consciousness. If we have been cosmopolitans in the past, we now have to become nationals. This term should not frighten us. From now on we have to formulate a maximum program that will have to put the accent on our national aspirations: language, culture, ways of life. National does not mean nationalism, but simply the desire to belong to a specific nation, whereas nationalism means, in the short or in the long run, the domination of one nation over another nation.

After Liber, Paul Rosental took the word. Born at Vilnius in 1872 in a family of merchants, he had affiliated with the socialist circle at the secondary school, subsequently with that at the university of Kharkov. He had engaged in a lively agitation among the Lithuanian students. Arrested and extradited he finished his studies in medicine in 1898, exercised his profession at Bialystok, leading the local paper of the Bund, the Bialystoker Arbeiter. Rosental was convinced that “the attempts to link the Jewish workers’ movement to a national structure were a hindrance and the desire to stimulate this national sentiment was artificial, premature and harmful.” Well, the socialist propaganda precisely drew the workers’ movement out of its national isolation and accustomed the workers to believing and feeling that all proletarians were brothers, without distinction in origin or religion. If not one would risk to act like the Jewish nationalists, who esteemed that there was no good in the Galout (the Exile). For him, “national self-conscience” was an inadequate term and simply expressed the consciousness of a national oppression. To claim the concept of nation risked to obscure the consciousness of the class of the Jewish proletariat and to distract it from its revolutionary objectives. Noa’h Portnoy expressed a more nuanced point of view. Born in 1872 in Lithuania, pupil of the teachers’ school, Yekutiel (Noa’h) Portnoy, related to Gojanski, was a militant of the first hour. He had been incarcerated at Kovno in 1895, subsequently at Saint Petersburg, and had been deported to Siberia, from which he fled in 1899. He esteemed that national oppression was evident because the Jews were oppressed as proletarians and as Jews.

The consciousness of the working class is the consciousness of belonging to a given nationality. The consciousness of the oppression, is the aspiration to demolish precisely this oppression. By arriving in this way first and foremost at obtaining its political rights, it will be able to fully develop subsequently.

On April 6 and 7, 1903, the pogrom of Kishinev occurred. It had been carefully prepared by the Bessarabian administration at the initiative of the Interior Minister, von Plehve. The pogrom left 49 killed and 500 wounded. 700 houses, 600 shops, factories and workplaces had been looted and devastated. 2000 families were left without a dwelling. Since the pogrom of Odessa in 1881, never had one reached such a large scale. The emotion was at its heights. 317 writers and artists, authors with a reputation like Tolstoy, raised a vigorous protest against the “bestiality committed by Russian men.” As the other socialist parties made some timid remarks here and there instead of vividly denouncing this antisemitism, protest meetings were held at New York, London, Berlin and Paris in return. The Bund organized protest meetings and demonstrations in numerous cities of the residential area. It scourged the police who had refused to defend the Jewish neighborhood and accused it of helping the underworld and the fringes of society. It demanded its sections to constitute armed groups of resistance and conducted a vigorous self-defense. It edited a series of leaflets, pamphlets, articles and booklets, in which one could read notably: “Violence, regardless of where it comes from, should be responded to by violence.” In a resolution of its V. Congress, two months later, the Bund affirmed: [6]

Of all the layers of the population, only the proletariat struggling behind the flag of social-democracy represents a force capable of putting up an effective resistance against the populace used by the government against the Jews. The Congress expresses the conviction that only the common struggle of the proletariat of all nationalities will destroy the roots that have permitted such events.

At the twenty-seventh session of the S.D.W.P.R., on August 18, 1903, the demand the Bund had formulated, maintaining federalism, was rejected by 41 votes against 5 and 5 abstentions. Liber declared:

In the name of the delegation of the Bund, I declare that the congress, having rejected the principal section of the statutes that we have proposed and that out fifth congress has recognized as the necessary condition to the affiliation of the Bund with the party, in conformity with the decision of the Bund’s congress, we leave the party’s congress and declare that the Bund withdraws from the S.D.W.P.R.

At the congress of the Russian social-democracy the most vivid opposition came from intellectuals of Jewish origin, like Julius Martov, Paul Axelrod, Theodore Dan and Leon Trotsky. Later, Medem related a brief discussion on the Jewish question he had had with Trotsky. “You cannot ignore the fact that you belong at a definite nation. Do you consider yourself a Russian or a Jew?” Trotsky replied: “No, you are mistaken! I am a social-democrat, one point that is all!” The social-democrats were ready to accept linguistic sections bundling the Jewish workers who neither spoke Russian nor Polish, but they categorically refused the national concepts of the Bund and an autonomous Jewish party. The defection of the Bund from the works of the congress permitted Lenin and his partisans of the Iskra to obtain a majority in favor of their theses. If the Bund would have participated at the congress until its closure, the latter would have accepted the principle of a workers’ party recruited by adhesion and largely open towards its sympathizers, and the Leninists would have been in the minority. Following the events of October 1905 in Russia (strikes, demonstrations...) the Bund organized its sixth congress at Zurich on the 13th of the same month. Its national reaffirmation as an autonomous Jewish party was intended against Zionist temptations. But for a week (from 18 to 25 October) more than 50 cities underwent the assault of the Black Hundreds, armed gangs that were payed by the secret funds of the Tsar. The Bund distinguished itself by putting in place self-defense groups. At Kishinev they waged embittered combats against the pogromist troops. Faced with the distress of Judaism, once more the emigration to the United States developed. In April 1906 the S.D.W.P.R., very impressed by the 35,000 members of the Jewish workers’ party and by its actions during the revolution of 1905, decided to readmit it as social-democratic organization of the Jewish proletariat at its Stockholm congress. During the year 1907 the Bund and its self-defense groups faced new pogroms fomented by hooligans and Christian workers. The antisemitic violence unchained: from 1906 to 1916, the autocracy printed and financed 2,837 writings of a diverse nature against the Jews that were distributed in millions of copies. The Bund undertook to strike back by distributing leaflets and pamphlets specifically conceived to denouncing the roots of antisemitism. Its self-defense groups updated their stock of arms (revolvers, dynamite). In the following years the boss’s unions attacked all the advantages obtained by the Jewish workers and, faced with the threat of strikes, they employed the weapon of lock-out. Thereby the workers at the tanneries had to give in and had to accept wage diminutions of 20%.

Before 1914 the debates on the national question raged and the Bund affronted itself with Lenin who criticized its position on national-cultural autonomy as an expression of the bourgeoisie with the workers’ movement. But it also was strongly anti-Zionist by opposing itself against the theses of Borochov on Eretz Israel. In 1914 there were 40,000 Jewish emigrants in Palestine, a third of whom in agricultural exploitations.

Birth and division of the S.D.W.P.R.

The first Russian Marxists from the “Group for the liberation of labor”, founded in 1883 in emigration, Grigory Plekhanov, Vera Zasulich and Paul Axelrod, constituted the first nucleus of this enterprise together with those of the second generation of Marxists, the group of the “League of the working class emancipation”, originated in 1895, with Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov, called Lenin, and Julius Martov.

From March 1 – 3, 1898, nine delegates of the social-democratic groups of Russia came together in a wooden house in a suburb of Minsk, under cover of a family feast. In order to give a national form to the diverse clandestine social-democratic groups existing in about twenty cities, they founded a party which they gave the name of Social-Democratic Workers’ Party of Russia (S.D.W.P.R.) by a vote of five against four. The name used the word ‘rossiiski’, in the geographical sense, and not ‘rousski’, in the ethnic sens. They elected a central committee of three members and confided to Peter Struve the care to edit a manifesto after the congress. It affirms that the more one goes to the east of Europe, the weaker the bourgeoisie is, and that the working class has to bear “the conquest of political liberty” in its place. At the end of March the Okhrana arrested five delegates and later three others. With the dismantling of the group of Kiev, one of the strongest, the young party was dislocated.

From August 24 – 28, 1900, Lenin, Potresov, Plekhanov, Zasulich and Axelrod came together in the vicinity of Geneva, in order to publish a newspaper with the aim of combating all opportunist currents in Russia, the “economists” in particular. But this project was hurt by the opposition between the agitating conceptions of Lenin (the paper has to be an instrument to organize a party in Russia) and the reserves of Plekhanov (the paper can only be a press organ publishing articles and commentaries). He reproached the Bund to exploit the Russians and the Jews to be chauvinists and nationalists. Lenin accused the popularizer of Marxism of being intolerant and antisemitic, and above all irremediably academic. Plekhanov obtained a decisive voice in case of equally divided votes within the editorial board. But Lenin placed the seat in Germany and not at Geneva. A first issue of the Iskra was published in Leipzig on December 11, 1900 (500 copies). From October 1900 to April 1901 Lenin lived at Munich under the name of Meier. The paper was printed there since its second issue. The first distribution groups in Russia were organized. Two agreements were concluded with the Bund and with the group of the Southern Worker without consequence. In effect the police opposed itself against the liaisons between revolutionaries. With “What to do?” , a work he finished in February 1902, Lenin theorizes the introduction of socialist ideas in the Russian conditions by a party of professional revolutionaries, “spearhead of the revolution” faced with the police of the Tsarist State. [7]

On July 30, 1903, the second congress of the S.D.W.P.R. opened at Brussels in an old disused bonded warehouse. After the dismantling of the Minsk congress this was the real founding congress, resuscitating immense hopes in Russia. It assembled 43 delegates with 51 deliberating votes , divided up into 33 “Iskrists” (confectioners and distributors of the paper), 5 members of the Bund, 3 “economists”, and 10 floating votes, qualified as “the swamp”. As a general strike had burst out at Baku, extending to Tbilisi, and faced with an electoral triumph for German social-democracy, the congress opened in an exalted atmosphere and Plekhanov boasted about “the big social force” the party has become. But he knew that this force was “spontaneous” and had to be given “a conscious expression” in the program, the tactics, and the organization of the S.D.W.P.R. The debates began with a conflict involving the Bund who, at an official strength of 35,000 members, claimed its internal autonomy in the party of a country comprising more than hundred different nationalities, from Azeris to Poles. As all other delegates opposed themselves against this demand, it was rejected by 46 votes against 5. Warski and Ganetski, observers of the S.D.K.P.i.L., left the congress as it voted in favor of the right of people to self-determination. They were partisans of a close fusion with Russia, in reaction to taking recourse to independence, as was propagated by the nationalism of Pilsudski’s socialist party. The Belgian authorities feared that the congress would deteriorate their political relations with Russia and sent policemen to track the participants down, assisted by Russian agents of the Okhrana. The delegates left for London, where they resumed their debates on August 11. Subsequently, the contradictions sharpened on article no. I of the statutes, defining who is a member of the party. Martov pleaded for a certain “elasticity” in the definition of an adherer, and wanted to attract as sympathizers anti-tsarist intellectuals who may be reticent about the rigors of discipline. In turn, Lenin underlined the central importance of the organization: he wanted to form a party of militants, of members who would regularly pay contributions, and did not want to deal with sympathizers who refused constraints. The article no. I of Martov was adopted by 28 votes against 22 and 1 abstention.

On August 17, infuriated by the majorities’ refusal of a specific vote on the equality of languages in the Empire, the five delegates of the Bund shut the door on the congress and on the S.D.W.P.R. altogether. The partisans of Lenin became the majority on the statutes with the election of a Central Committee in Russia by secret votes, of an editorial board of the Iskra abroad, and of a Party’s Council. This is the famous division between Bolsheviks (majoritarians) and Mensheviks (minoritarians) that split the S.D.W.P.R. in two. The political divergences between these two tendencies would develop in the course of the 1905 revolution. After a period of reunification (1906 – 1911), they led to a new rupture in 1912. The separation between the two wings of the S.D.W.P.R. became definitive in 1917 with the outbreak of the October revolution, in which the Bolsheviks became the champions of the principle of a proletarian movement taking power by virtue of its own organs: the Workers’ Councils.

1914 and beyond

The German Social-Democracy accepted the war dictate of capitalism, drawing its proletariat into the first World War. Rosa Luxemburg spoke of “crisis” and Lenin of “the bankruptcy of the II. International.” In effect numerous social-democratic parties encumbered in nationalism. Only a handful of revolutionaries (Bolsheviks, Spartakists...), and the conferences of Kienthal and Zimmerwald, maintained the anti-capitalist spirit. On August 2nd, the S.D.K.P.i.L and the Bund proclaimed the general strike, which had however little acclaim as Pilsudski, at the head of the P.P.S., opted for the sacred union. The position of the Bund was close to that of the Menshevik internationalists who opposed themselves against a coalition with non-socialists and who esteemed that the answer to the conflict had to be “without annexations and without repairs.”

Opposed to the Bolshevik uprising, esteeming that it went against the idea of a socialist democracy, the Bund opened its VIII. and last Congress on Russian territory on December 21, 1917, at Petrograd. It proceeded for a week. There were 100 representatives of the party covering 357 local sections and 40,000 adherers. Speaking against the “coup d’Etat” of October, the delegates opposed themselves against the methods of Blanquism and demanded that the Constituent Assembly would attain full powers. After the dissolution of the latter and the weakening of the Mensheviks, the Bund tried to maintain its organization, but became little by little dominated by the Bolshevik government, who rejected little by little the principle of autonomy. From March 5 – 11, 1921, a last conference was held at Minsk, and the Bund decided to dissolve itself, after having launched, in vain, an appeal to the Comintern (the Communist International) to accept an autonomous Jewish party.

In Russia the Bund fell victim to Stalinism: pursuing his combat against Martov and the Mensheviks, one of its leaders, Mark Liber was exiled in 1923, subsequently executed during the purges of 1937. Those who joined the Communist Party also met tragic ends: accidents, suicides, detention in camps...

In Poland, the Bund conducted the struggle in the ghettos, in particular in that of Warsaw, where it stood at the head of the combat against the Nazis in April 1943. The genocide of the Jewish people began in 1941 by collective murders like those from the Einsatzgruppen in Eastern Poland. The Bund compiled alarming reports on the fate of Polish Judaism. In the ghetto of Łódź the Bundists developed a whole system of sanitary and social aid, ensured the presence of a syndicate and a cultural survival (library, theater). In May 1943, Zygielbojm, a Bundist leader, committed suicide, not only in protest against the mass crime organized by Nazism in the extermination camps, but also against the passivity of the governments of the allied nations, who had never attempted concrete measures in order to have the genocidal crimes stopped.

Guy Sabatier, March 2011.

First published in: Controverses, Cahier Thématique No. 1 , November 2011.
Translated from French by: Jac. Johanson, November 2014

[1The party Proletariat was founded in 1882 under the impulse of Ludwick Warinski, a year after the assassination of Alexander II. It distinguished itself from the party “Polish People” that was founded at the same time by rejecting the demand for national independence. The tsarist repression (arrests and executions) made an end to “Proletariat.” In 1888 the survivors formed a “Second Proletariat” at Warsaw by instigation of Martin Kasprzak, a worker from Poznan. As a pupil at the lyceum, subsequently a university student, Rosa Luxemburg belonged to the two successive groups of “Proletariat.” Threatened with arrest she had to leave for Switzerland in 1889.

[2cf. Elzbieta Ettinger, Rosa Luxemburg, une vie, Belfond, Paris, 1990, p. 68 – 70.

[4Cf. Henri Minczeles: Histoire générale du Bund – Un mouvement révolutionnaire juif, (p. 53); éd. Denoël, Paris, 1999, 446 p.

[5The Lithuanian social-democrat who later became leader of the Cheka.

[6Idem, p. 64 – 67.

[7Pierre Broué, Le Parti bolchevique – Histoire du PC de L’U.R.S.S, Les Éditions de Minuit, Paris, 1977 ; p.30-31.