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The Tragedy of Zionism by Bernard Avishai (excerpt)

(The following historical and economical analysis of Borochov’s theories is from pages 78 to 85 of The Tragedy of Zionism: Revolution and Democracy in the Land of Israel by Harvard academic Bernard Avishai © 1985 (Bernard Avishai) published by Farrar Straus Giroux, New York)


If for Syrkin capitalism made the Diaspora dangerous, for the idiosyncratic Marxist Ber Borochov it suggested historical laws which made immigration to Palestine inevitable. Borochov was born in a Jewish town in the Ukraine in 1881; his family were staunch members of Hibat Zion. As a young man, Borochov not only made an energetic study of Marxism but compiled the Jewish Pale's first bibliography of contemporary Yiddish literature. He was among the first to apply quantitative methods to the study of Jewish class structure. When Lenin rejected the idea of Jewish autonomy in 1901, Borochov left the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party; by 1906 he became a leading member of Poale Zion in Russia.

At the Sixth Zionist Congress, Borochov emerged as a bitter opponent of the Uganda proposal. He defended his opposition to the plan with what can only be called Marxian coyness; and yet in so doing he formulated a defense of a Jewish national home in Palestine which was to be enormously important to settlers who came out of Poale Zion, especially to the leftist radicals of the Third Ascent, who went to the Yishuv after World War I. "We do not claim," he wrote in "Our Platform," in 1906, "that Palestine is the sole or best territory. We merely indicate that Palestine is the territory where territorial autonomy will be obtained. Our Palestinianism is neither theoretical nor ‘practical’ but predictive."

In his most famous essay, "Nationalism and the Class Struggle," written in 1905, Borochov adopted the central premises of Russian Marxism and applied them to Zionism. It was in view of those premises that his "prediction" made sense. "In the social production which men carry on," he wrote, "they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite state of development of their material powers of production." What propelled history, Borochov continued, were class conflicts; in the "bourgeois stage," the conflict between the capitalist and the worker.

In addition to the standard Marxian notions of "relations" and "means" of production, Borochov made an original and innovative claim; he contended that there were "conditions" of production, consisting essentially of the national territory, that conditions of production helped to account for the differences between peoples’ linguistic and spiritual expression. Moreover, conditions of production varied considerably from one territory to another: "They are geographic, anthropological, and historic… a sound basis for a purely materialistic theory of the national question." Other Marxists – Plekhanov for one – had accounted for national differences in terms of geography. But Borochov went further, associating conditions of production with the nation’s presumably inherent struggle for survival. "The assets of a social body," he wrote, "lie in its control of its conditions of production, the national struggle is waged not for the preservation of cultural values but for control of ‘material possessions.’"

Thus, a nation defended its territory in order to survive, to preserve the "feelings of national kinship" deriving from shared "conditions of production." To be sure, this national "feeling" was reactionary whien its bourgeois proponents did not link it to the class struggle; in that case, it was merely "nationalism." But the nation might be of fundamental value to the working class under certain conditions, especially when the national conditions of production were denied. In any case, the proletariat must be interested in nationalism as a focus for political action: "If the general base and reservoir of the conditions of production, the territory, is valuable to the landowning class fo rits land resources and as a base for political power… then it has value for the proletarian – i.e., as a place in which to work."

Significantly, it was not Borochov’s view that national consciousness would disappear, even in a classless society. "Every serious student must consider as far-fetched and hazardous the contention that national differences will be eradicated simultaneously with the eradication of class differences." In making conditions of production a fundamental category of Marxist analysis, Borochov seemed rather to imply that nation was as important a category of analysis as class: both were rooted in material reality. Consequently, or so Borochov concluded, workers of a nation might justifiably do whatever was necessary to survive as a national proletariat.


In "Our Platform," Borochov applied his materialist view of nationalism to the Jewish question:

Our piont of departure is the development of the class-struggle of the Jewish proletariat. Our point of view excludes a general program of the Jewish people as a whole. The anomalies of the entire Jewish nation are of interest to us only as an objective explanation of the contradictions of the Jewish proletariat ... We [Jewish workers] defend our cultural needs and economic needs, wherever we are. We fight for the political, the national, the ordinary human needs of the Jewish worker.

The Jews, Borochov argued, were in a uniquely vulnerable position in Eastern Europe; in the Galut, the Diaspora, Jewish workers depended on the proletariat of what Pinsker called the "host" people. The Jewish class struggle, meanwhile, was directed against a bourgeoisie with little economic power and, since it was largely Jewish, no political power at all. A solution would be found only "when the Jews find themselves in the ‘primary’ levels of production." Only then will the Jewish proletariat "hold in its hands the fate of the economy of the entire country, the sectors of the economic life where the fabric of the society as a whole is woven." Indeed, Borochov though he discerned a law of history that other Marxists had missed:

We may state quite simply that a national struggle takes place wherever the development of the forces of production demands that the conditions of production belonging to a second group be better, more advantageous, or that in general they be expanded.

That may not have been putting it simply, but Borochov was suggesting an insight which many Jews found to be enormously shrewd: When Jewish workers found themselves economically disadvantaged—i.e., vulnerable to the forces of the larger economy—they might be expected to gain a new "strategic base" within the international division of labor, as much for the sake of the class struggle as their own sake. Genuine nationalism in no way obscures class-consciousness, Borochov insisted. It manifested itself only among "progressive elements" of oppressed nations; indeed, it was "the purpose of national demands to assure the nation normal conditions of production to assure the proletariat a normal base for its labor and class struggle."

Borochov conceded that the first choice of most Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe was America. But this was not the right choice, he argued, since Jewish workers in New York, for example, were employed almost exclusively in the production of consumer goods and "performed no essential functions in the primary levels of production."

[The immigrant] is incapable of paralyzing the economic organism in a single stroke as can the railroad or other workers who are more advantageously situated in the economic structure…

Upon his arrival, [he] seeks to enter the first levels of production, the levels of constant capital. Through their concentration in the large cities, however, Jews retain their former economic traditions and are condemned to the final levels of production, the labor-intensive manufacture of consumer goods. Thus the need of the Jews to develop their forces of production and become a normal proletariat remains unsatisfied.

Why should Jewish immigrants to America not count on gainful employment there? In a later essay, "The Economic Development of the Jewish People," Borochov wrote that intense competition among market entrepreneurs would result in the increased use of machinery, the concentration of industrial capital, reduced wage bills, and so on. There would thus be a steady growth in that part of investment capital devoted to what Marx called "constant" capital—machinery, plant, materials—and a proportionate diminution of that part devoted to "variable" capital—i.e., to labor. Following Marx, Borochov called this tendency of the "organic" composition of capital to rise, and he predicted both a general decline in the rate of profit and cyclical crises which would become more and more intense. Borochov concluded that the rise of the organic composition of capital would not only bring about widespread and increasing unemployment but that it would first hit workers—particularly Jewish workers—concentrated in enterprises where the proportion of variable capital is high Since Jewish labor was concentrated almost exclusively in the production of variable capital—i.e., as in the small capitalist trades of the Jewish workers of the Pale—Jewish labor would be displaced by non-Jewish labor.

Marx divides modern capital into two categories: constant capital (land, factory, buildings, raw materials, coal, machines) and bariable capital (human labor-power)…The Jews as a whole participate but little in the production and distribution of constant capital… That constant capital grows at the expense of variable capital is one of the most important generalizations in Marxian economic theory… the fact that machines displace the worker…("The Economic Development of the Jewish People")

Borochov correctly identified an important development in the political economy of Eastern European Jewry. But had he read Marx’s Capital more patiently—or read Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations at all—it is doubtful he would have drawn the conclusions he did from which he inferred the inexorable forces of Zionist emigration and settlement. For one, capitalist advance did not have to result in the absolute impoverishment with workers. To be sure, successful capitalists might become richer and richer relative to the workers they employed, there might be a "relative impoverishment." (Marx had wryly anticipated how this, too, hurts: "Put a castle next to a house," he wrote, "and the house becomes a hut.") But a rise in the organic composition of capital did not mean that wages could not rise substantially, or that severe unemployment must be chronic and increasing. In fact, a general rise in the organic composition of capital could mean unprecedented enrichment for everybody.

Enrichment presupposed other developments: unions would have to be formed to fight wage hikes; entrepreneurs would have to be skilled in science; credit would have to be organized. But the mere fact that New York machines were able to do the work of immigrant Jewish weavers from Lodz was no reason to expect, as Borochov did, the drift of indigent Jews to Palestine. On the contrary, if machines made things faster and in larger quantities, and if Jewish workers and their children displaced by machines moved to new industries and professions in spite of anti-Semitism, then real wages—for American Jews and everybody else—might rise to a level much higher than before. Just such an age of improvement was about to dawn on the Jews of America, led by, of all people, the Jew-baiting inventor of the Model T.

Borochov did not foresee this. His solution was for Jews to find some underdeveloped land which they could develop by means of labor-intensive enterprises. It would be best, he thought, for Jewish workers to get a strategic base in Palestine, where the economy was still primitive; where the kinds of skills Jews possessed would allow them to participate more handsomely in the class struggle than in America. The national territory, he thought, would give Jewish workers just what America could not: "National competition is possible only within the national economic territory; no nation can compete successfully unless it has a strategic base."

Naturally, many young Zionist pioneers embraced Borochov’s vision; life in Palestine was difficult, and the pioneers liked to think Jewish workers had no alternative but to come there sooner or later. Indeed, the pioneers began to talk about "reversing the pyramid" of Jewish occupations in their national home, about concentrating in that part of the economy—i.e., agriculture—which was the "primary condition of production." In this way, they joined Tolstoyan notions of making a Hebrew peasantry with a "structural" analysis of Palestinian economic life. Also, radical socialism appealed to the pioneers’ democratic sensibilities, since the small, mainly agricultural collectives they envisioned would be directed by the whole community in common, would be a classless society—"from each according to his ability, to each according to his need."

Still, it is doubtful that Borochov provided a serious rationale for Jews leaving the Pale to concentrate in labor-intensive production. Just why, for example, he thought it impossible for Jews to become railroad workers in America he left unexplained. Perhaps he implicitly agreed with Syrkin that anti-Semitism would prevent this. Certainly he thought—wrongly—that the capitalist economy was contracting, not expanding, and that this would create difficulties for any immigrant group. Borochov also seems a victim of his own sleight of hand regarding his use of the term "primary conditions of production." Territories, of course, may be important to the development of any nation insofar as it needs to evolve somewhere in the world. But this is an arguable anthropological point, surely, not a reason to expect a strike of farm workers to have more effect than a strike of garment workers. In fact, the pioneers could not more paralyze the Palestinian economy in a single stroke than could the Jewish garment workers in America; had they been able to, their power would have had nothing to do with Eretz Yisrael’s historic role of providing ancient Hebrews with their primary condition of production.

Perhaps Borochov had an agenda which he was unable to articulate or unwilling to acknowledge: that the loss of Eretz Yisrael, after all, like the abandonment of the rural-life Yiddish in Eastern Europe, did not make the Jews vulnerable so much as make Judaism vulnerable. Was Borochov’s reasoning merely Marxist in form but cultural Zionist in content? It seems clear that Borochov’s Jewish workers did not become a nation in Palestine in order to become a more vital proletariat; they became a proletariat in Palestine in order to become a more vital nation. Borochov’s very notion of a strategic base seemed an encoded endorsement of Achad Haam’s notion that Jewish culture, to survive, must be the product of every branch of production, "from agriculture and handicrafts, to science and literature."

Borochov never saw Palestine. He agitated for Poale Zion until the war, and then he traveled to America. In 1917 he went back to Russia to paticipate in the Revolution and organized a small Zionist brigade that fought in the Red Army. Exhausted, he died in December of that year.