By Henryk Erlich. Originally published in Warsaw, 1934.
The Bund is alive, effective, and engaged in developing an intensive and many-sided activity in both the national and international spheres. The large masses of workers and working-class youth who listen to its message and march with enthusiasm behind its standard are the best evidence that the Bund has retained its youthful vigor in the fullest degree, and that today, just as in the first years after its emergence, it remains the expression of the social and national aspirations of the Jewish working class.
This we owe to the mass character and profound inner democracy of our movement. These qualities have protected the Bund from becoming rigid and case-hardened, and have provided the opportunity for testing and correcting its principles and slogans in the crucible of experience. But, of course, the Bund movement would not have achieved the mass character which has marked it in all its phases had its principles and slogans not expressed the needs of the Jewish working masses and the demands of the times.
What constitutes the essence of Bundism? To what degree has Bundism justified itself?
Those who refer to the history of the Bund usually have in mind the General Jewish Labor Bund in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia. But that Bund actually existed only until 1914—1915. The First World War broke the Bund into separate parts. The Bund in the Soviet Union exists today only as a potential force. Besides this, the Bund in Poland arose on the territory of what had once been Imperial Russia, which, in addition to the former Russian territories, also included western and eastern Galicia. And in more recent years a Bund has arisen in Rumania. With the exception of Bessarabia, the regions encompassed by this very youngest Bund never belonged to the “territory” of the old, prewar Bund, bBut the socialist Jewish workers’ movement in Rumania, through its own free choice, linked up with the traditions of the Bund and adopted its ideology.
When we speak today of the history of the Bund and the essence of Bundism, we must therefore keep in mind not only the prewar General Jewish Labor Bund in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia, but also all postwar Bunds, and above all the Bund in Poland, the active heir to the old-time Bund.
Three things distinguished the Bund and distinguish it to this very day:
- Its organizational principle;
- Its response to the Jewish question; and
- Its attitude toward the central problems of the general labor movement.
The working class of every ethnic group must have its own organization, which should be adapted to the language and other national conditions of the given environment. This is the principle that has been defended by the Bund from the first moment of its existence: the general nationwide party which, in a natural fashion, must first of all be adapted to the conditions of life of the national majority of the country, can win to socialism more or less significant parts of the working class from the other nationalities. But to penetrate into the depth of the working class, to agitate it to its very core and lead it in large, compact masses to the socialist banner—this can be done only by an organization that has grown out of the bosom of that particular working mass.
The working class of every nationality must have its own organization but not its own party. In a country with several nationalities, only one party should exist, composed of as many autonomous national organizations as there are nationalities in the country.
The Bund arose [in 1897] a year before the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party (RSDWLP) was founded. But at its very inception it regarded itself as a part of the coming national party, and as soon as the RSDWP was founded—with its active cooperation—the Bund, quite naturally, occupied an autonomous place in its ranks. Until the present day the Bund in Poland has been a completely independent party, but not because we regard it as something better or because we have departed from the traditional organizational principle of the Bund, but because conditions in Poland are not yet ripe for the emergence of a single party. The socialist party of the Polish proletariat has not yet decided, up to this very moment, to abandon its national parochialism and become a national party instead of a national-Polish party—in short, to become in place of a Polish Socialist Party (PPS) a Socialist Party of Poland (SPP).
I emphasize this point in particular because we have more than once heard the charge of “separatism” leveled against us.
Has our principle of organization justified itself? Life has confirmed it with proofs that are both positive and negative. The Jewish labor movement in Latvia, Rumania, and the United States had to develop according to the same principle.
And the negative proof is the Soviet Union. The All-Russian Communist Party rejected the organizational principle of the Bund. It forced the “Kombund” [Communist Bund] to disband its organization and compelled its members to enter the general Communist Party as individuals. The result is that while there is much work that needs to be done in the Soviet Union, the Jewish workers there have no such thing as a Jewish labor movement. And with the present structure of the Soviet Communist Party, a Jewish labor movement would not be able to exist today even if greater internal democracy prevailed.
If the struggle for our organizational principle can be regarded as more or less completed, the same cannot yet be said about our struggle for the correct response to the Jewish question. It is something almost unbelievable for today’s generation of Bundists that there was a time when the Bund had occasion to conduct a persistent struggle against assimilationism. I would like to be correctly understood: I am not referring here to practical assimilation, i.e., to assimilation as one of the processes taking place in Jewish life. The Bund never denied the existence of such a process.
I am referring to assimilation as one of the ideologies in Jewish society. There exists even today no lack of assimilated Jews in the world and of individuals (Jews and non-Jews) who consider assimilation a solution to the Jewish question. But within our sphere of influence there virtually no longer exists a party or even a more or less significant group that is ready to defend assimilation as a program. Both the PPS and the communists recognize the right of
the Jewish masses today to a school in the mother tongue (Yiddish) and to the Yiddish language in court and administration.
In the area of the national question there has remained, in full strength, our great dispute with the Jewish bourgeoisie, more accurately with Zionism as the sole remaining species of territorialism. Yet in a certain sense, here too life itself has resolved the issue; for no matter how stubborn the struggle against Bundism waged until this very day by the Zionists, they have had to admit that the hope for a successful ingathering of all the Jews of the
world—or at least the largest part of them—to Palestine, and the notion that Zionism could serve as a solution to the Jewish question in general, has turned out to be a dream, a mirage. Whether another 200, 300, or even 500,000 Jews are successfully brought or smuggled into Palestine, or whether the Arabs together with the British occupier succeed in reducing Jewish immigration to a minimum, the big question that confronts the Jewish masses in the so-called goles [diaspora] countries—What next?—will not find an answer in Zionism. Palestine can be, and can remain, nothing more than another goles country in the world…
Both the social and national problems of the Jewish masses can find their solutions only where the Jewish masses live and only as a result of a radical political and social upheaval. In other words, the reply to the question: Here or there?, which has really been the main question in dispute between us and Zionism all along, has been provided by life itself in the form of the unequivocal answer: Here!
Thus, what finally remains is how to characterize the Bund’s attitude toward the basic problems of the general proletarian movement.
The Bund had been part of the RSDWP and played a most active role in the life of that party, in its persistent internal ideological conflicts. The first years of the war found the Bund in Poland cut off from the General Jewish Labor Bund in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia. And when the storm-and-stress period of the postwar years followed the indescribably difficult years of war and occupation, the Bund in Poland, as an independent party, was already impelled to take a position on all the enormous problems that confronted the labor movement throughout the world. Under the impact of the gigantic scope of the Russian Revolution, a large part of the European proletariat was swept into the communist current. When the condition of international communism today is
compared with what existed in 1919-1920, one simply cannot believe how swiftly the communists squandered what they possessed. Communism, as something radiating from the Russian Revolution, was surrounded by an immense aura at that earlier time. The Jewish workers’ movement in Poland did not avoid the fate of the workers’ movement in the world at large: the first so-called Unity Congress of the Bund in Poland (unity with the Jewish Social-Democratic Party in Galicia) drew the Bund closer to communist positions.
But the realism of our movement and its profound internal democracy made it impossible for our party to maintain those positions. Virtually no party in the world came out of that period without being damaged or split. The cost to the Bund of its experience with communism was comparatively negligible. When the Second Congress of the Bund rejected the “21 Conditions” of the Comintern, 5 out of 50 democratically elected delegates left the congress. We attribute this negligible loss not only to the democratic structure of our movement but also to the deep internal cohesion that has characterized the Bund from its inception.
The Bund in Poland swiftly discarded the communist illusions. This shift received organizational expression after a number of years of passionate but comradely intraparty disputes, in the form of affiliation with the Labor and Socialist International. But the Bund absorbed the tremendous experience of the postwar revolutions and of everything that happened after them. Against the background of that experience, and in accord with the principles of revolutionary Marxism and its own party traditions, the Bund formulated its attitude toward the core problems of our time.
We are opposed to reformism, We reject the illusion that socialism can evolve within a capitalistic system in a peaceful, purely democratic fashion. We appreciate the great significance of the so-called democratic freedoms for the development of the labor movement within the framework of a capitalist society, but the experience of recent years, especially in Germany and Austria, has clearly demonstrated the limited nature of so-called formal democracy in the struggle for socialism. Hence we know that it will be impossible to realize socialism without the methods of revolutionary class-struggle, and that the road to authentic, i.e., socialist, democracy proceeds through a transitional stage of dictatorship by the revolutionary classes.
Yet just as we reject reformism, we also reject communism. We are opposed to the anti-Marxist tactics of the communists. The regime of unfreedom or “freedom” reminiscent of the Prussian barracks, which the communists have instituted even in their own ranks, is totally alien to us. We oppose their endeavor to violate the will of the working class and to institute the dictatorship of the Politburo over the working class. And we condemn most sharply the criminal divisive policy of the communists, their policy of civil war in the workers’ ranks, which has already brought so much harm to the labor movement of the whole world.
This is our position. We have defended it for years on end. The events of the recent past have served to strengthen our devotion to it.