National Sections of the L5I:

Bundism or Leninism?

Printer-friendly versionPDF version

Last month's Workers Power carried an article about the debate in the Russian socialist movement early this century over the issue of organising Jewish workers. Below David Rosenberg of the Jewish Socialist Group challenges our defence of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Richard Brenner replies for Workers Power.

Dear Comrades,
It was a pity that Kate Foster’s informative article about Lenin and the Bund (WP 179) stopped at 1905. You can only do justice to the Bund’s broader critique of Leninism on issues of national minorities, culture and assimilation, and its contribution to socialist theory and practice, by analysing what actually happened once the Bolsheviks took power and also by looking at Poland in the 1930s where the Bund became the leading force within Europe’s largest Jewish working class.

If the Bund was mistaken in claiming the sole right to organise amongst Jewish workers, its demand reflected the experience of a workforce segregated by government-decreed social and economic discrimination, and acutely aware that the general workers’ movement was failing to respond adequately to anti-semitic terror.

Trotsky’s casual dismissal of the horrific Kishinev pogrom as a reflection of “the general unconsciousness of the masses” typified this failure. When the RSDLP’s assimilated Jewish Marxists defended their plans for organising Jewish workers, Bundist delegates interjected, with justification, “among whom you have never worked!”

Lenin tried to label the Bund as “separatist” but this accusation is belied by the fact that from its inception the Bund allied with other socialist parties—first in the RSDLP, then with the Mensheviks after the 1903 split, and later with the left wing of the Polish Socialist Party and socialist parties of other national minorities in Poland in the 1930s. In contrast to separatist movements, the Bund was fiercely anti-nationalist. Its principles declared: “Against one’s own and foreign nationalism”.

Historians of the Soviet Union often ascribe the repression of Jewish life to Stalinism but it began earlier and flowed from the Bolsheviks’ restricted view of Jewish culture, which, in turn, borrowed unconsciously from pre-revolutionary views about Jews. Once on power the Bolsheviks outlawed anti-semitism and recognised in practice the Jewish nationality that they denied in theory, but they simultaneously created a Jewish section of the party to confine Jewish cultural expression within narrow “approved” channels.

Kate Foster defends Lenin’s position on assimilation as being an improvement on Kautsky’s. Nevertheless in supporting assimilation Lenin never questioned exactly what Jewish workers were assimilating into; as if Russian working class culture was somehow immune to cultural influences including reactionary nationalist and religious ones. His assimilationism also made a negative statement about the culture in which Jewish workers located significant aspects of their identity. Lenin may have opposed “forced” assimilation but he apparently ignored the more subtle processes which devalue minority cultures and encourage assimilation into a supposedly superior culture. This factor continues to create mistrust and resentment between minorities and the Left today. A frank admission that Lenin may have been wrong on this question might make the Left a more welcoming place for socialists within minority communities!

Lenin’s disparaging comments about “Jewish national culture” as being that of the rabbis and the bourgeoisie merely reveal the extent to which he misunderstood the Bundist view. In promoting “national cultural autonomy” the Bund supported the broadest cultural development in Jewish life knowing that this would provide a basis for Jewish working class culture to flourish. It strengthened rather than weakened the Jewish workers in their struggles against their bosses and religious leaders. The seriousness with which the Bund treated culture meant that in 1930s Poland they had a mass movement of literate, self-confident and self-educated workers in a population where few received formal education beyond the age of 10 or 11.

That mass movement was decimated by Nazism while, ironically, its leaders were being executed on Stalin’s orders. The Bund exists in a much diminished form today but the legacy it has bequeathed is a vision of a socialism enriched by cultural diversity and a conception of nationality that does not rest on territory or the nation state. In a period of nationalist division and “ethnic cleansing” it is a vision worth recalling and fighting for.


Richard Brenner replies

We think the Bund’s demand for the sole right to organise Jewish workers was profoundly mistaken. Whatever the Bund’s principles may have declared, it represented an adaptation to nationalism.

Is it true that “the general workers’ movement was failing to respond adequately to anti-semitic terror”? David Rosenberg gives two examples.

The first is Trotsky’s remark about the Kishinev pogrom. We cannot see how anyone could view this as a casual dismissal. He merely points out that any section of the working class that participates in bloody pogroms is not conscious of its class interests. The party saw its role as being precisely to combat this “general unconsciousness” and to imbue in all workers a spirit of the utmost hostility to anti-semitism and pogromism. That is why the 1903 Congress (at which the sharp debate on the role of the Bund took place) adopted the following resolution:

“. . . the Congress recommends comrades to use all means in their power to combat such movements and to explain to the proletariat the reactionary and class inspiration of anti-semitic and all other national-chauvinist incitements.”

To justify the claim that the rest of the RSDLP made no efforts to organise among the Jewish workers, David Rosenberg takes as good coin the statements and insinuations made by the Bundist leaders during the 1903 debate. But many delegates from across the Russian Empire pointed out that this claim was simply not true. One delegate pointed to events in Ekaterinoslav, where social-democratic activity among Jewish workers was recorded as early as 1896. The Bund subsequently sent agitators into the area claiming exclusive rights to organise the Jewish workers—even though no Bund organisation existed in the town! Why would the Bundist leaders have demanded sole rights to organise if no other sections of the party were undertaking this work?

David quotes the famous heckle from one Bundist leader (Lieber) at the 1903 Congress, accusing one Jewish member of the party (Trotsky) of not having worked among the Jewish proletariat. Why take Lieber’s word for it? The minutes of the Congress show that this accusation was made directly after Trotsky had pointed out something that the Bundist leaders found deeply embarrassing: the motion opposing the Bund’s claim for sole rights to organise Jewish workers was signed by Jewish party members.

Later in the debate Trotsky contested Lieber’s accusation:

“Many comrades who have worked and are working among the Jewish workers do not belong to the Bund, and yet regard themselves as being, for all that, no less representatives of the Jewish proletariat, as a proletariat. I mentioned that these comrades are Jews. Why? So as to block the favourite argument of Bund publicists—a poverty-stricken argument—that opponents of the Bund’s position know nothing about the psychology of the ‘Jewish proletariat’”.

The Bund’s claim for sole rights to represent Jewish workers, and their proposal that “other sections of the Party have the right to address the Jewish proletariat only with the assent of the Central Committee of the Bund”, militated against a genuinely All-Russian party able to take decisions based on the interests of the working class as a whole across the Russian Empire. The reason for this, as the article in WP 179 pointed out, was the Bundists’ fear of assimilation.

David clearly thinks this fear was justified. He says the Bolsheviks had a “restricted” view of Jewish culture, and even that Lenin’s comments on Jewish national culture were “disparaging”.

This is nonsense. Far from having a restricted view of national culture, of all the tendencies within the Marxist movement it was the Bolsheviks who developed the most balanced, historical and dialectical understanding of it. David Rosenberg chooses only to quote Lenin’s comment that “Jewish national culture is the slogan of the rabbis and the bourgeoisie”. He leaves out the other side of Jewish national culture that Lenin referred to, “the great world-progressive features of Jewish culture . . . its internationalism, its identification with the advanced movements of the epoch”.

Lenin recognised that every nation, from the most privileged to the most oppressed, is made up of antagonistic classes. There are therefore two discrete components of every “national culture”. The dominant element will be that associated with the class that is in power:

“The elements of democratic and socialist culture are present, if only in rudimentary form, in every national culture, since in every nation there are toiling and exploited masses, whose conditions of life inevitably give rise to the ideology of democracy and socialism. But every nation also possesses a bourgeois culture (and most nations a reactionary and clerical culture as well), in the form, not merely of “elements”, but of the dominant culture. Therefore, the general “national culture” is the culture of the landlords, the clergy and the bourgeoisie . . . In advancing the slogan of “the international culture of democracy and of the world working class movement”, we take from each national culture only its democratic and socialist elements; we take them only and absolutely in opposition to the bourgeois culture and the bourgeois nationalism of each nation.” (Lenin’s emphasis)

So much for Lenin’s one-sidedness. He was merely pointing out which class forces stood to gain from agitation for national culture—the clergy in the backward stetls and ghettos who relied on the power of religious illusions, and the bourgeoisie in the towns who wanted the Jewish workers to see them as national allies rather than as class enemies. This “disparaging” attitude he applied to all bourgeois national cultures (not just Jewish culture), alongside a most determined and consistent defence of national self-determination and cultural freedom against all forms of violence and oppression.

Similarly, it is downright false to claim that Lenin “never questioned” what Jewish workers were assimilating into.

He referred consistently to the international culture of democracy and the working class movement. That is a common progressive element in every national culture. Only an assimilation of national cultures that takes place without force, oppression and privilege, from the most violent to “insidious” forms of petty persecution, can strengthen this progressive element. Any element of a national culture that is being persecuted must be defended. But if, in the absence of any coercion, elements of a bourgeois national culture—dress or dietary habits, language, religion—are voluntarily abandoned by the masses, are Marxists to campaign positively for their maintenance? This is to reduce internationalism to sheer nationalism, to fight not for freedom but for bourgeois and in some cases pre-bourgeois institutions and traditions.

As for the idea that Lenin regarded Russian working class culture as “immune to cultural influences including nationalist and religious ones”, it is laughable. Lenin fought for the whole of his political life against every manifestation of Great Russian chauvinism and national oppression. His last struggle was against the growing threat of Russian chauvinism being promoted by Stalin and Ordzhonikidze through the Commisariat of Nationalities. Lenin’s aim was not to force small or oppressed nations to undergo a process of “Russification”, but to allow the most free integration of the working masses, welcoming each and every development that drew them closer together.

It is revolutionary, working class integrationism (the integration of workers of all nationalities and ethnic groups into a common class movement and socialist culture) combined with a resolute defence of all nationalities from every form of persecution, that will make the Left a more welcoming place for socialists from minority communities.

Special organisations and special forms of work directed at oppressed sections of the working class are vital tools in this fight, provided they have the aim of building a really united, really integrated class movement.

If each national community within the workers of a particular country retain sole rights to determine their policy, if the workers’ party remains a mere federation of different sections of the class rather than a centralised and integrated whole, then there can be no common class policy and no common class action.

Precisely in a period of exacerbated national antagonisms, of an intellectual “retreat from class”, and of rising racism and anti-semitism across Europe and the world, it is this lesson we must recall.