General Jewish Labour Bund in Lithuania, Poland and Russia
The General Jewish Labour Bund of Lithuania, Poland and Russia (Yiddish: öžö ö ö ¡ö, Algemeyner Yidisher Arbeter Bund in Lite, Poyln un Rusland), generally called The Bund (Yiddish: ö, from the German: Bund meaning federation or union) or the Jewish Labour Bund, was a secular Jewish socialist party in the Russian empire, active between 1897 and 1920. Remnants of the party remain active in the diaspora as well as in Israel. A member of the Bund is called a Bundist (Bundistn in the plural).
The General Jewish Labour Bund in Russia and Poland was founded in Vilna on October 7, 1897. The name was inspired by the General German Workers' Association. The Bund sought to unite all Jewish workers in the Russian Empire into a united socialist party. The Russian Empire then included Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine and most of present-day Poland, areas where the majority of the world's Jews then lived. The Bund sought to ally itself with the wider Russian social democratic movement to achieve a democratic and socialist Russia. Within such a Russia, they hoped to see the Jews achieve recognition as a nation with a legal minority status. Of all Jewish political parties of the time, the Bund was the most progressive regarding gender equality, with more than one-third of membership being female.
In 1901, the word 'Lithuania' was added to the name of the party.
During the period of 1903-1904, the Bund was harshly affected by Czarist state repression. Between June 1903 and July 1904, 4,467 Bundistn were arrested and jailed.
Given the Bund's secular and socialist perspective, it opposed what it viewed as the reactionary nature of traditional Jewish life in Russia. Created before the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP), the Bund was a founding collective member at the RSDLP's first congress in Minsk in March 1898. For the next 5 years, the Bund was recognized as the sole representative of the Jewish workers in the RSDLP, although many Russian socialists of Jewish descent, especially outside of the Pale of Settlement, joined the RSDLP directly.
At the RSDLP's second congress in Brussels and London in August 1903, the Bund's autonomous position within the RSDLP was rejected under pressure by the Bolsheviks and the Bund's representatives left the Congress, the first of many splits in the Russian social democratic movement in the years to come. The five representatives of the Bund at this Congress were Vladimir Kossowsky, Arkadi Kremer, Mikhail Liber, Vladimir Medem and Noah Portnoy.
The Bund formally rejoined the RSDLP when all of its faction reunited at the Fourth (Unification) Congress in Stockholm in April 1906, with the support of the Mensheviks, but the party (RSDLP) remained fractured along ideological and ethnic lines. The Bund generally sided with the party's Menshevik faction led by Julius Martov and against the Bolshevik faction led by Vladimir Lenin during the factional struggles in the run up to the Russian Revolution of 1917.
The fifth congress of the Bund met in Zurich in June 1903. 30 delegates took part in the proceedings, representing the major city branches of the party and the Foreign Committee. Two issues dominated the debates; the upcoming congress of the RSDLP and the national question. During the debates there was a division between the older guard of the Foreign Committee (Kossovsky, Kremer and John (Yosef) Mill and the younger generation represented by Medem, Liber and Raphael Abramovitch. The younger group wanted to stress the Jewish national character of the party. In the end no compromise could be reach, and no resolution was adopted on the national question.
In the Polish areas of the empire, the Bund was a leading force in the 1905 revolution. During the following years, the Bund went into a period of decay. The party tried to concentrate on labour activism around 1909-1910 and led strikes in ten cities. The strikes resulted in a deepened backlash for the party, and as of 1910 there were legal Bundist trade unions in only four cities, Bialystok, Vilno, Riga and Lodz. Total membership in Bundist unions was around 1,500. At the time of the eight party conference only nine local branches were represented (Riga, Vilno, Bialystok, Lodz, Bobruisk, Pinsk, Warsaw, Grodno and Dvinsk) with a combined membership of 609 (out of whom 404 were active).
After the RSDLP finally split in 1912, the Bund became a federated part of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (Menshevik) (by this time the Mensheviks had accepted the idea of a federated party organization).
At the 1906 First Duma elections, the Bund made an electoral agreement with the Lithuanian Labourers' Party (Trudoviks), which resulted in the election to the Duma of two (apparently non-Bundist) candidates supported by the Bund: Dr. Shmaryahu Levin for the Vilnius province and Leon Bramson for the Kaunas province. In total, there were twelve Jewish deputies in the Duma, falling to three in the Second Duma (February 1907 to June 1907), two in the Third Duma (1907–1912) and again three in the fourth, elected in 1912, none of them being affiliated to the Bund.
The Bund eventually came to strongly oppose Zionism, arguing that emigration to Palestine was a form of escapism. The Bund did not advocate separatism, focusing on culture, not a state or a place, as the glue of Jewish "nationalism." In this they borrowed extensively from the Austro-Marxist school, further alienating the Bolsheviks and Lenin. The Bund also promoted the use of Yiddish as a Jewish national language and to some extent opposed the Zionist project of reviving Hebrew.
The Bund won converts mainly among Jewish artisans and workers, but also among the growing Jewish intelligentsia. It led a trade union movement of its own. It joined with the Poalei Zion (Labour Zionists) and other groups to form self-defense organisations to protect Jewish communities against pogroms and government troops. During the Russian Revolution of 1905 the Bund headed the revolutionary movement in the Jewish towns, particularly in Belarus.
Less than a year after the founding of the party, its Foreign Committee was set-up in Geneva. Also within the same timespan, Bundist groups began to constitute themselves internationally. However, the Bund did not construct any world party (as did Poalei Zion). On the contrary, the Bund argued that it was a party for action inside the Russian empire. The Bundist groups abroad were not included into the party structures. In 1902, a United Organization of Workers' Associations and Support Groups to the Bund Abroad was founded. The groups affiliated to the United Organization played an important role in raising funds for the party.
When Poland fell under German occupation in 1914, contact between the Bundists in Poland and the party centre in St. Petersburg became difficult. In November 1914 the Bund Central Committee appointed a separate Committee of Bund Organizations in Poland to run the party in Poland. Theoretically the Bundists in Poland and Russia were members of the same party, but in practice the Polish Bundists operated as a party of their own. In December 1917 the split was formalized, as the Polish Bundists held a clandestine meeting in Lublin and reconstituted themselves as a separate political party.
The Bund was the only Jewish party that worked within the soviets. Like other socialist parties in Russia, the Bund welcomed the February Revolution of 1917, but it did not support the October Revolution in which the Bolsheviks seized power. Like Mensheviks and other non-Bolshevik parties, the Bund called for the convening of the Russian Constituent Assembly long demanded by all Social Democratic factions. The Bund's key leader in Petrograd during these months was Mikhail Liber, who was to be roundly denounced by Lenin. With the Russian Civil War and the increase in anti-Semitic pogroms by nationalists and Whites, the Bund was obliged to recognise the Soviet government and its militants fought in the Red Army in large numbers.
At the time of the 1917 upheavals, Mikhail Liber was elected president of the Bund. In May 1917, a new Central Committee of the Bund was formed, consisting of Goldman, Erlich, Medem and Jeremiah Weinsthein. One Central Committee member, Medem, was in Poland at the time and couldn't travel to Saint Petersburg to meet with the rest of the Committee.
Four different Bund bureaus were represented as such among the 60 delegates to the May 1918 Menshevik Party conference: Moscow (Abramovich), Northern (Erlich), Western (Goldshtein, Melamed) and Occupied Lands (Aizenshtadt).
The political changes at the time of the Russian revolution resulted in splits in the Bund. In Ukraine, Bund branches in cities like Bobruisk, Ekaterinoburg and Odessa had formed 'leftwing Bund groups' in late 1918. In February 1919 these groups (representing the majority in the Bund in Ukraine) adopted the name Communist Bund (Kombund), re-constituting themselves as an independent party. Moisei Rafes, who had been a leading figure of the Bund in Ukraine, became the leader of the Ukrainian Kombund. The Communist Bund supported the Soviet side in the Russian Civil War.
The Bund also had elected officials at the local level. During the 1917 October Revolution and Russian Civil War, the mayor of the predominantly Jewish Ukrainian town of Berdychiv (53,728 inhabitants, 80% of whom were Jewish at the 1897 census) was a Bundist, D. Lipets.
The remainder Bund in Russia held a conference (the Twelfth Conference of the Bund) on April 12–19, 1920 in Gomel, where the party was split into two different parties, the majority Communist Bund (Kombund) and the minority Social Democratic Bund.
The fourteen point of the resolution "On the Present Situation and the Tasks of Our Party" stated that
Summing up the experience of the last year, the Twelfth Conference of the Bund finds:
- that the Bund, in principle, had adopted the communist platform since the Eleventh Conference,
- that the Programme of the Communist Party, which is also the programme of the Soviet government, corresponds with the fundamental platform of the Bund,
- that a –united socialist front– with principled opponents of Soviet power, who draw a line between the proletariat and its government, is impossible,
- that the moment has come when the Bund can relinquish its official oppositional stand and take upon itself responsibility for the Soviet government–s policy.
The logical consequence of the political stand adopted by the Bund is the latter–s entry into the R.C.P on the same basis as the Bund–s membership of the R.S.D.L.P.. The conference authorised the C.C. of the Bund to see to it, as an essential condition, that the Bund preserve within the R.C.P. the status of an autonomous organisation of the Jewish proletariat.
In 1921, the Communist Bund dissolved itself and its members sought admission to the Communist Party. As of 1923, the last Bundist groups had ceased to function in Soviet Russia. Many former Bundists, like Mikhail Liber, perished during Stalin's purges in the 1930s. The Polish Bundists continued their activities until 1948. Today the Bundist legacy is represented through the International Jewish Labor Bund, a federation of local Bundist groups around the world.
Among the exiled Bundists who went on with Socialist politics in America was Baruch Charney Vladeck (1886–1938), elected to the New York Board of Aldermen as a Socialist in 1917, defeated in 1921 but re-elected in 1937 to the newly formed New York City Council running on the American Labor Party ticket. He was also the manager of the Jewish Daily Forward from 1918 till his death.
The father of David Lewis (1909–1981), former leader of the Federal New Democratic Party in Canada, was a Bundist leader in his Polish (now Belarusian) hometown Svislosz before he emigrated to Canada in 1922.
The American Labour leader David Dubinsky (1892–1982), though never formally a member of the party, had joined the bakers' union, which was controlled by the Bund, and was elected assistant secretary within the union by 1906. He made his way to the United States in 1911. He became later a member of the Socialist Party of America, helped found the American Labor Party in 1936 and was from 1932 till 1966 the leader of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union.
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