Site hosted by Build your free website today!

Ber Borochov and Socialist Zionism (I-II) by Mitchell Cohen(1984)

Ber Borochov and Socialist Zionism by Mitchell Cohen (1984) (I-II)

(From the introduction to Class Struggle and the Jewish Nation: Selected Essays in Marxist Zionism by Ber Borochov; Mitchell Cohen, ed. Transacation Books:1984)

Not long before the commencement of World War I, a young Russian Jewish exile named Ber Borochov attended a lecture by V.I. Lenin in Liege, Belgium. When the Bolshevik’s talk ended, Borochov arose and began presenting the case for Socialist Zionism. Lenin laughed in reply and told his interlocutor that he was trying to be both "here and there." You, said the future leader of the Soviet Union, are trying to sit on two chairs at once. The problem is, you are not even on the two chairs, you are in the empty space between them. [1]

No doubt Borochov, the founder of Marxist Zionism, grasped the full import of Lenin’s chide. In Borochov’s view Marxists and socialists had, by and large, failed to come to grips with the question of nationalism in general and the Jewish question in particular. If, according to Marx, communism was a specter haunting Europe, for Borochov nationalism was a specter haunting socialism. Indeed, this ghost still stalks today, over sixty years after Borochov’s death. Now, as then, there are few socialists (at least in the West) who would call themselves nationalists, certainly not without a grimace. Did not Marx and Engels proclaim in the Communist Manifesto that "working men have no country"? Did they not assert that "national differences and antagonisms between peoples are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and conditions of life corresponding thereto"?

National differences intensified throughout the world in the century after Marx’s words were penned. Most Marxist theorists–with important exceptions, such as the Austro-Marxists–never fully confronted the issue. Rather than developing a materialist theory of nationalism, they often assumed it to be a temporary phenomenon only (in which case Marx would eventually be proven right), a thoroughly reactionary phenomenon (to be fought under all circumstances), or, as in the case of Lenin himself, largely a tactical question (in which national culture per se ultimately had no true value). The very notion of socialist internationalism seemed to negate nationalism: Would it not obfuscate the class struggle? Would it not mislead the proletariat into subservience to a ruling class that would, under the banner of patriotism, send off workers to die for imperialist interests as in World War I?

Such questions became more problematic throughout the twentieth century with the emergence of Third World anticolonial struggles–which were and are almost unanimously supported by the Left. These struggles, however, have generally taken the form of national struggles. Orthodox Marxists may argue that the socialist struggle is international in content while national in form. This ignores the fact that the awakening Third World’s efforts have been national both in content and in form, even when led by socialists. The desire to create a positive, indigenous national content in the lives of peoples drained by European political and cultural domination has been central to such endeavors and analyzed well by writers like Albert Memmi and Frantz Fanon.

Thus the question of nationalism is far from resolved. In supporting anticolonial struggles, an admission of some form of progressive nationalism cannot be escaped. But does internationalism require the assertion that once victory is at hand in a given country, its national culture no longer has value? Is nationalism simply a means in a worldwide struggle against imperialism? And is it not cynical, if not patronizing, to take this argument to its logical conclusion, namely that a national culture is progressive when the nation is oppressed, and reactionary once freedom has been won? If this is not the case then a different understanding is required of the phenomenon of nationalism, and in the realm of Marxist theory this means a materialist analysis of something whose potency was supposed to have vanished long ago. Other questions must also follow. If a form of progressive nationalism is to be allowed–with the obvious corollary that there exists reactionary nationalism as well–what manifestations shall it take? What is its relationship to the state and what meaning shall self-determination have for the various nations in a multinational state? When is political independence justified or necessary as opposed to autonomy, within a given state?

Ber Borochov’s chief theoretical achievement was an attempted synthesis of nationalism and socialism. He had a very specific national problem in mind–that of the Jews. This volume represents a selection of his essays all of which, in one way or another, revolve around this topic. He did not answer all the questions posed above, and not all his answers will be judged as satisfactory. Yet his represents an important, if largely unknown, effort. One reason Borochov is not well known is the inaccessibility of his writings to the English speaking reader. The sole edition of his writings to have appeared in English… was published in 1937, reprinted once, yet is not easy to find. Another important reason is that he was a Zionist who tried to synthesize socialism with a form of nationalism that has not been popular on the Left. The Jewish question as a whole, including Zionism, has been almost as troublesome for the Left as the national question. Beginning with Marx’s 1843 essays "On the Jewish Question," through Lenin’s, Luxemburg’s, and Trotsky’s espousal of Jewish assimilation, to current hostility in sections of the Left to the very existence of a Jewish national entity–the Jewish question and Zionism have been like a bone in the throat of many socialists (Jewish and non-Jewish alike) who have been unable either to swallow or disgorge it.

Borochov was unwilling to grant Lenin’s premise that one could sit either on the chair of socialism or that of nationalism, but not on both. As far as the Jewish question was concerned, either chair alone seemed too wobbly to him. The empty space between them would have to be filled by a movement for Jewish national self-determination and socialism in Palestine. Such an effort would at once affirm the specificity of the Jewish question, solve it, and maintain solidarity with international socialism. Borochov’s attempt at socialist-nationalist synthesis was tied to the immediate problem of Jewish nationalism and oppression. It was primarily grounded in the atmosphere of Russian Marxist and intellectual currents, Jewish politics, and a Jewish community that was facing a crisis of modernity in a backward, multinational, repressive Czarist empire. To fully appreciate Borochov’s effort, all these factors must be kept in mind; for he was not just a theorist of Socialist Zionism, but a political renaissance man, the father and leader of a political party, and a pioneering philologist and analyst of Yiddish culture, highly versed in literature and philosophy. To remove his writings from this context is to abuse them. The following pages draw a board picture of his political odyssey–an odyssey cut short when he was but thirty-sic years old, at a time when Bolshevism presented a new reality to his Party in Russia and his comrades in Palestine struggled to build the backbone of a new Jewish nation.


Ber Borochov was born on June 21, 1881, in Zolotonoshi, the Ukraine, where his father, a Hebrew teacher, had recently sojourned in an unsuccessful effort to establish a school. Two months after his birth the family returned to their hometown Poltava (also in the Ukraine), where young "Borya" was to grow up. The time and place of his birth are significant. In March 1881 Czar Alexander II was assassinated by the populist terrorists of Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will). In the following month pogroms swept southern Russia. During the next two years Jews–long the victims of repressive Czarist legislation–were attacked, raped, murdered, threatened, and their homes and places of work looted and burned in 200 towns. The Narodnaya Volya, champions of the peasantry (the main source of pogromists), issued a declaration defending the pogroms and accusing Russian Jewry of being "exploiters."

The Jews lived confined to an area in the western Russian empire (including parts of Poland) generally known as the Pale of Settlement. Their status was that of Russian subjects of non-Russian birth, and they were restricted from various professions, barred from living outside cities and towns, and not permitted to hold rural lands.[2] They lived by the grace of the generally hostile government and local populace. The Czars, with occasional respite, devised numerous schemes throughout the nineteenth century to rid themselves of the Jewish problem., using methods ranging from assimilation incentives to force and coercion. In addition, the Jewish community, traditional until the nineteenth century, was feeling the impact of the Haskalah (enlightenment), whose adherents, the maskilim, strove to have contact with the non-Jewish world and its culture. Some Jewish intellectuals became more and more secularized while others remained "enlightened" but very much within a Jewish frame of reference. Still others, hoping for a triumph of liberal values that would throw off the yoke of confinement they suffered as Jews, promoted integrationist ideas.

For this last group, the pogroms of 1881-82 were a rude awakening. It led men like Leo Pinsker–active in the Society to Promote Culture Among the Jews–and Moshe Leib Lillienblum to despair of the Jewish fate in Russia and to become Zionists. The first organized Russian Zionists, the Hovevei Zion (lovers of Zion) appeared, and a trickle of Jews began leaving for Palestine, forming what became known as the First Aliyah (first wave of immigration). Among them was a small, determined group called Bilu, whose members saw themselves as pioneers in the ancient homeland; in their ranks were several volunteers from Poltava. Nineteen years earlier, a German Jewish socialist and former colleague of Marx, Moses Hess, wrote a little-noticed book, Rome and Jerusalem, calling for a Jewish socialist state in Palestine. Five years before Borochov’s birth a Vilna-born political exile named A.S. Lieberman…had organized the first association of Jewish workers in London, the Agudat Hasozialitstim Haivrim (Hebrew socialist union).[3] In the decades after 1881, concurrent with the growth of Russian radicalism and socialism, Jewish socialist circles began appearing in the Pale, leading to the birth of the Jewish Labor Bund and the Labor Zionist movement at the turn of the century.

The town in which Borochov spent his youth was a microcosm of these currents. His close childhood friend Itzhak Ben-Zvi (then Itzhak Shimshelevitz and lather the second president of Israel), described it as follows:

Poltava was a city without factories or industrial plants. Instead there were numerous mills, as well as many artisans and petty merchants…The population lived mainly by the sales of products brought from surrounding villages. The Jews engaged in petty commerce and artisan trades; occasionally they earned a living as unskilled laborers. Because there were no factories and large plants there was no labor movement.[4]

Poltava would seem, then, an unlikely place for the radicalization of youths. Yet perhaps because the town had no industrial proletariat, the Czarist regime ordained it as an exile place for radicals. At various times this included the future Menshevik leader Martov, different Narodniki, the writer Vladimir Korolenko, and others; the police chief characterized Poltava as a "university for revolutionaries."[5] Ben-Zvi wrote of young Borochov that "with the help of political exiles, he quickly mastered socialism."[6] As for the Jewish community–Jews had begun settling there in the late eighteenth century and by the late 1870s numbered about 4,000, a figure that was to grow to over 11,000 by the late 1890s. It was a well-organized, progressive community and an early center of Zionist activities.

With Zionists and revolutionaries in his home town, the ingredients of Borochov’s future ideas were before him. His parents, deeply rooted in Jewish affairs, were maskilim, and his father was a leading member of the Poltava Hovevei Zion. As a teacher licensed by the government, Moshe Aharon Borochov was not suspect of harboring illegal literature or radicals–which he and his wife did nonetheless. Young Borya, first of eight children, thus had easy access to an array of "subversive" materials.[7] From the time he was two or three his parents spoke only Russian in the house, because they feared a Yiddish accent would impede him in school. By the time he graduated from the gymnasium in 1900–he was denied honors by an anti-Semitic teacher, thus preventing his entry to a university–he mastered the knowledge of literature, sciences, economics, philosophy and several languages including Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit.[8] Borya discussed Palestine with young Ben-Zvi and twice, at ages ten and sixteen (in 1897, the year Herzl founded the World Zionist Organization in Basle), he tried to leave for that far-off land, only to be returned from neighboring towns.

By the time he was seventeen or eighteen he was immersed in the study of philosophy. There was a saying in Poltava: "If you can’t get Kant and Schopenhauer from the Central Library, it is a sign that Borochov and his hevra [comrades] are now dealing with German philosophy."[9] When he graduated, the gymnasium’s director described him as "quiet, modest, doesn’t talk much…deals with nonsense."[10] Borya Borochov then moved to Ekaterinoslov (now Denepropetrovsk), where he would make his first mark in politics. Shmarya Levin, a leading Russian Zionist and, for a period, official rabbi of the city (founded in 1778 by Catherine the Great) described this industrial center on the Dnieper River in the following words: "My first glimpse of this almost virgin city of Ekaterinoslav seemed to open new horizons to me, and I felt renewed in its newness. Here, where the generations had not preempted everything, a man could still write his name into something."[11] The city had an active Social Democratic movement which put out an illegal newspaper, Iuzhnyi Rabochii (the southern worker), and had close contacts with some of Russia’s leading revolutionaries. By the late 1890s the Jews, numbering 41,000, made up slightly more than a third of the city.

Ekaterinoslav also had a strong Zionist movement centered around one of Russia’s leading Zionists–a man who was to have a crucial impact on Borochov–Menachem-Mendel Ussishkin. "Among the closer friends of Herzl," comments Levin, "he was regarded as an opponent of the latter, because he symbolized the old days when Zionism was centered more on Palestine than on the political setting, the days when–so it was said–a goat in Palestine counted for more than the promise of a chancellery."[12] Herzl’s Zionism was based on grand diplomacy, the hope of getting a charter for a Jewish state from a great power, while Ussishkin’s like the Bilu’s, focused more on the concrete work of settling Jews in Eretz Israel (the ancient land of Israel), although not necessarily to the exclusion of political efforts.

The newly arrived nineteen-year-old from Poltava joined the Russian Social Democratic Party in Ekaterinoslav. He worked as an organizer and propagandist but was soon confronted by the "space between the two chairs." Levin writes:

He came to the city about the same time as myself, having just completed a course in the gymnasium in Poltava. But he was educated far beyond his years. He had an excellent grounding in general philosophy, had advanced far in higher mathematics, and had studied with good results Marxian economics. He was, in addition, a man–or should I say boy–of unusual intellectual honesty. He carried on vigorous Zionist activity among the youth under the direction of Ussishkin. But his Marxism gave him no rest. [13]

Borochov was at once caught between socialism and Zionism. His period in the Social Democratic Party was short-lived. One of his associates was a young fellow named Pozdniakov (who had recently been expelled from a Christian theological seminary for atheism). With Pozdniakov he would engage in "heated discourse on Karl Marx and Richard Avernarius," Borochov later reminisced, adding that "both of us–we were all of nineteen–knew Marx’s Capital by heart, and we’d go agitating among the workers, Jews and gentiles alike, pressing illegal brochures into their hands."

Richard Avenarius (1845-1896), together with Ernst Mach (1838-1916), were the leading names associated with the philosophical-psychological school as empiriocriticism, which had greatly influenced Borochov beginning in Poltava (more on this later). It should be noted that among Borochov’s responsibilities for the Social Democrats was teaching A.A. Bogdanov’s Principles of Political Economy to workers’ circles. This volume was one of the most popular educational texts among Social Democrats and its author–later a rival of Lenin for the leadership of the Bolsheviks–became the chief Russian proponent of a Marxist version of empiriocriticism, which he called "empiriomonism," and for which he as the object of derision, first by Plekhanov and then by Lenin. Bogdanov greatly influenced Borochov, who came to refer to himself as a historical materialist and a monist.

It was apparently Borochov’s interest in the national question and Zionism, and his insistence on lecturing on Zionism, that led to his expulsion from the Party in May 1901. He later explained:

I do not remember what turned me into a non-believer. After meeting with both Jewish and gentile workers, I came to see the truth of Socialist Zionism. The committee [of the Party] noticed my increasingly deleterious effect on the workers and charged that I was teaching them to think independently. I was quite unceremoniously given the boot by the Russian Social-Democratic Party.

What does a banished Russian Social Democrat turned Zionist "infidel" do? He immediately marches off to a large Jewish home-study student union and converts them into the first Poale Zionists [Labor Zionists] in Russia. [14]

Borochov had already lectured on socialism and Zionism, and it seems that he even debated Levin on the issue. Both Levin and Ussishkin opposed his socialism but found him a valuable asset to Zionism nonetheless. Ussishkin would later reject the opposition of Joseph Klausner (himself eventually a prominent Zionist historian and biographer of Ussishkin) to printing Borochov’s articles.[15] By 1905 (along with the future founder of the extreme right-wing of Zionism, Vladimir Jabotinsky) Borochov was one of Ussishkin’s chief lieutenants in Russian Zionism.

Borochov had not yet developed the theoretical synthesis for which he would become famous. His claim (cited above) that the Ekaterinoslav Socialist Zionists were the first in Russia was not completely accurate. In 1897 a group calling itself Poale Zion (workers of Zion) emerged in Minsk. But Borochov’s group was one of the earliest, and soon other Poale Zion groups were born throughout the Pale. Shortly after the turn of the century Poale Zion groups appeared in Austro-Hungary, the United States, and Britain as well. Nachman Syrkin (1868-1924), born in Mohilev, began formulating a Socialist Zionist position with his articles "The Jewish Question and the Jewish Socialist State" (1898) and "A Call to Jewish Youth" (1901), among other writings. Syrkin helped found a Socialist Zionist movement called Herut (freedom) [unrelated to the later Herut founded by Menachem Begin in the 1940s] in Berlin, and was an active, if a minority, voice in the World Zionist Organization.

Syrkin’s Socialist Zionism was rather different than Borochov’s, as we shall soon see. The former argued that anti-Semitism was the modern guise of a perpetual Jewish-Gentile tension caused by the "unusual historical situation" of the Jews and the forms of social life which gave "root and sustenance" to such hatred. As a landless people, the Jews had a particular problem. Emerging bourgeois society and Jewish cultural and community organizational distinctiveness clashed. Since capitalist society implied bellum omium contra omnes, "an everlasting individual and class struggle," it was inevitable that the Jews would be in a volatile position. Economic competition played a central role in this entire process. Also, unlike religiously based medieval Jew-hatred, Syrkin argued, the issue was now racial. It was worst in declining classes. The peasants and the middle classes–both of which were being destroyed by big capitalists–made the Jews the butt of competitive tensions.

Socialism and national sovereignty, suggested Syrkin, provided the only solution. A Jewish state would have to be built, and Syrkin wanted it constructed on the basis of cooperative socialist principles from the outset. Palestine would be acquired "in alliance with other oppressed nationalities in the Turkish empire through a common struggle against the Turks." He called for a program of socialist colonization and cooperative settlements–ideas which "classical Borochovism" would reject. Syrkin’s philosophy was not Marxist; it was developed independently and earlier than Bororchov’s and lacked the latter’s emphasis on class struggle.

Borochov became increasingly close to Ussishkin in Ekaterinoslav. Soon he was working for the General Zionists and drifted far afield from the existing Poale Zion groups, which lacked any central organization. His first published essay, "On the Nature of the Jewish Intellect" (1902)–which appeared in a General Zionist publication and displayed the marked influences of both Marxism and empiriocriticism–attempted to analyze the geniuses of a nation, in particular of the Jews, as the unique expression of a given culture and history.[16] Originally a lecture delivered at Ussishkin’s home, its birth went back to Poltava where Borochov had once debated and greatly impressed V.V. Liashevitch, a philo-Semitic academic authority on Avenarius. Later in Ekaterinoslav, Ussishkin met Liashevitch who, among other things, commented that a young Poltava Jew was one of the few people he had met who actually understood Avenarius. When Borochov appeared one day at Ussishkin’s house (it was their first meeting) and requested that the latter arrange to have him lecture either on Avenarius and then, with a certain reluctance, agreed to the youth’s request. He invited the best of the city’s Jewish intelligentsia and the lecture was a success.[17]

Avenarius and Mach were representatives of one school of German thought in the late nineteenth century particularly interested in epistemological and psychological questions. Theirs represented an attempt to do away with the epistemological subject [18] in an effort to transcend the distinction between matter and idea by claiming that reality could not be properly described as either. Avenarius’ "monistic" and biological approach to human knowledge asserted that human thought and experience could be reduced to sensations that were neither physical nor spiritual. Cognition was seen as a response of the central nervous system to the outside world, aimed at equilibrium for the organism. Central to this process was the spending and absorbing of energy in the nervous system. Reducing the subjective and objective to a biological question of sensations, this "monism" tried to do away with philosophical dichotomies between subject/object, physical/mental, and is/ought. It also stressed the mind’s tendency to economize and organize knowledge as it is accumulated, a process it viewed as necessary to any science.[19]

Borochov’s interest in empiriocriticism thus antedated its rise in popularity in Russian radical circles after 1905–in fact he was by then moving somewhat away from it. Bogdanov’s empiriomonism argued that empiriocriticism was a scientific advance that helped rid the world of metaphysics and was as such of great value to Marxism. (Lenin, following Plekhanov, claimed that the entire approach was reducible to Berkleyan idealism.) Critical of Avenarius on numerous points, Bogdanov tried to corroborate empiriocriticism with a broader social framework.

The epistemological views of Avenarius, Mach, Bogdanov, and Borochov himself are not the central concern here, but rather Borochov the Socialist Zionist. However, the terminology and frames of reference of the empiriocriticism appear as important elements of Borochov’s Zionist formulations of 1905-1906. Organic descriptions, processes leading to equilibria, and the spending and conserving of energy are conceptions embedded within Borochov’s analysis of the subjective and objective factors of the Jewish anomaly in the Diaspora. Even in his more orthodox Marxist Zionist writings empiriocritical terminology and ideas play a crucial role, and the reader interested in his epistemological views is referred to Mattityahu Mintz’s seminal study of Borochov between 1900 and 1906.[20]


In 1902 Borochov returned to Poltava, where he was active in Jewish self-defense work, especially after the Kishinev pogrom of 1903. This violent and vicious anti-Semitic outburst traumatized Russian Jewry, particularly the youth, Bialik wrote his famous poem "City of Slaughter" about it. That year Borochov’s family left for America (to where the eldest daughter, Nadia, had already gone). Poltava province had recently also experienced peasant riots after a bad harvest. Borochov around whom a group of young Zionists coalesced, was particularly bitter and disappointed by the reaction of Social Democrats to the pogrom. Ironically, in July 1904 he was arrested for a month on charges stemming back to his past membership in the Social Democratic Party. Unable to find evidence against him, police released him.[21]

At this time, important controversies raged within the Zionist movement and along the Labor Zionists. One major questions for the Labor forces was that of political activity in the Diaspora: Should they, with their essentially pessimistic view of the Diaspora, be intimately involved in the struggle against Czarist autocracy? The "Blues," particularly the Minsk Poale Zion, were resoundingly opposed, and Borochov sympathized with that position until the 1905 events. On the other hand, the "Reds" called for intense involvement in the revolutionary struggles. Dispute also arose over the primacy of the demand for Jewish autonomy in the Diaspora. As if to make matters more complicated, the Zionist movement as a whole, and the Socialists within it, were torn apart by a British offer to the World Zionist Organization to establish a Jewish home in East Africa (the Uganda Plan). Many General and Socialist Zionists (like Syrkin) became Territorialists, arguing that the immediate traumas of the Jews had to be paramount. To focus on Palestine was romantic in their view; the Jewish problem could be solved by territorial autonomy in any land.

A different political perspective came from the Vozrozhdeniye (Renaissance) group which originated in 1903. Non-Marxist, close to the Russian Social Revolutionaries and the eclectic Jewish thinker Chaim Zhitlovsky, the Vozrozhdeniye accepted the principle that territorial autonomy would be needed to solve the Jewish question but claimed that this was a distant prospect and the struggle for autonomy in the Diaspora had to be a major concern in the meantime. The Vozrozhdeniye, whose influence went way beyond its numbers because of its journal, stressed that securing national rights for Jews in the Diaspora was a necessary step in solving the Jewish question. Borochov was among those who were impressed by this group which, in 1906, merged into a new party, the Sejmists (or SERP–the Jewish Socialist Workers Party). Based in the Ukraine, the Sejmists pressed for Jewish national autonomy on what was called a national personal basis, rather than on a territorial basis. They imagined each of the various nationalities in the Russian empire possessing its own Sejm (parliament) within a confederated framework. In direct contrast to the Vozrozhdeniye and the Sejmists was the Zionist Socialist Labor Party (the Z.S.), which minimized the question of autonomy and became, in effect, Socialist Zionists without Zion, i.e. socialist territorialists. Emotionalism, they claimed, led to the Zionist stress on Palestine. The Jews needed a land–any land–immediately. Among their leaders was Nachman Syrkin.

Borochov, in the meantime, was a Zion Zionist working with Ussishkin.[22] The latter feared that Jewish youths would be swept away by either territorialism or revolutionism. In 1904 he published a pamphlet entitled "Our Program." It is possible that Borochov had a hand in writing it. Ussishkin was vehement in his opposition to territorialism–Eretz Israel alone would carry the Jewish future in his view. "Our Program" outlined his ideas on guaranteeing Zionist success in that land. "In the political revival of any people," he stated, "three elements play a part: the people, the territory, and outward conditions." To build a "politically free" national center, a high national consciousness was required along with disciplined organization. It was necessary to "be ready to sacrifice the interests of the present for the sake of the future."[23] Just as important:

Long before a state is established the territory must actually belong, in an economic and political sense, to that people which desires to form a center in it. Its whole life must be dependent on this people, which must be possessor de facto, even though not as yet de jure/ The people must be bound to the land by eternal ties of heartfelt love and devotion. The earth must be moistened with its blood and sweat. [24]

To be victorious Zionism had to act simultaneously in three directions: diplomacy, cultural work, and concrete work in the Land of Israel. Previously, said Ussishkin, the Zionist movement failed to coordinate all such efforts. He went on to stress that:

In order to create a Jewish autonomous community, or rather a Jewish state in Palestine, it is above all necessary that the whole soil of Palestine, or at least the major portion of it, should be in the possession of the Jews. Without property rights to the soil, Palestine will never be Jewish, no matter how many Jews there may be in the cities and even the villages of Palestine. The Jews would then occupy the same abnormal position which they do today in the Exile. They would have no ground on which to stand.[25]

To hasten the "normalization" process, Ussishkin suggested establishing cooperative colonies based on Jewish labor and, harking back to the Bilu, calling for a self-sacrificing "Jewish Universal Society of Workmen," composed of strong, young, unmarried men, who would volunteer for three years in Palestine of "military duty to the Jewish people, not with musket and sword but with plow and sickle."

Borochov was struck by these ideas, and two of his essays from 1905, "On Questions of Zionist Theory (originally drafted sometime earlier) and "To the Question of Zion and Territory" reflect this. His tone in both essays is far from Marxist in many respects. These essays represent his ideas right before the formulation of "Borochovism."

In "On Questions of Zionist Theory"…, Borochov stresses the need for immediate Zionist action: "We must not wait" are its passionate opening words. He proceeds to argue on the basis of the Weber-Fechner Law, a nineteenth century psychological formulation based on the work of E.H. Weber and G.T. Fechner.[26] This law claimed that the intensity of a sensation increases as the logarithm of the stimulus, or, as Borochov explains:

If we translate this law from the language of mathematics to the language of life, it means that sensation increases at a much slower rate than the changes that take place in the environment, that as time goes by the individual pays less and less attention to these changes. Therefore, the more a person’s situation improves, the greater will be his demand for further improvement, and the longer he will have to wait to feel a real improvement in his environment that he considers as satisfactory.

Thus the oppressed are likely to be content with and "the least sensitive" to their own situation. However, "the surest way of making a slave dissatisfied and demanding is to alleviate the harshness of his lot." So far as the Jews were concerned, matters had objectively improved–Borochov foresaw no future mass expulsions or inquisitions (how wrong he was)–but subjectively the Jews would need more. In short, he presented a theory of rising expectations.

Those expectations would not be fulfilled by relying simply on "progress." Borochov criticizes, in quite un-Marxist terms, those who put their faith in progress as the ultimate salvation of the Jews. Such optimism was, in his view, totally unwarranted, for "in the Galut [exile] there is no salvation for the Jewish people." He even asks whether history’s evolution can be called progress. Underlying this is a questioning of the price of progress for the Jews and whether advocacy of "progress"–when it means embracing universalism and negating particular Jewish needs–does not catch the Jews in a painful bind. "Progress," he writes in a striking passage, "is a two-edged sword. If the good angel in a man advances, the Satan within him advances also." As an example he cites the situation of the Jews in Morocco. Progress there meant a justified revolt of the indigenous population against European colonialism that had dominated the country. In such an event the Jews, being neither a true part of the indigenous (Moslem Arab) population nor part of the French colonial culture and apparatus, would be caught in the middle.

All social groups, argues Borochov, use others for their own purposes; they will assimilate other groups if it benefits them, but will never share material possessions with outsiders. All creatures, and analogously all nations, need food to replace used energy. Nations, like the body, assimilate other nations when their possessions are needed. But there is a major difference between two nations living in adjoining lands and a nation which lives–like the Jews–as a stranger in the midst of another. Borochov speaks of "primordial and elemental fear of the stranger" extending to all sectors of society.

The Jews must not only cope with their foreignness–their economic structure in the Diaspora is an "abnormal" one. Having been invited originally into societies to play a restricted econoimc function, the Jews were segregated and overrepresented in middleman roles and as artisans. With the development of capitalism and, concurrently, of an indigenous middle class and bourgeoisie, the Jews gradually became superfluous. Eventually this led to displacement, migrations, and expulsions. The Jews were economically dependent on the peoples around them and lacked a material base, especially since there was no Jewish agricultural class (which Borochov called here the foundation of all societies).

We are foreigners, and nowhere in the world do we possess the social power that could make us masters of our fate. We are cut off from nature and have no agriculture. All this has left us hovering in the air. Our history in the Galut has never been shaped by our own powers; our fate has always depended on external ties.

In this essay Borochov stresses the sociopsychological rather than the economic factors in anti-Semitism, despite the above claims. His presentation of national groups parallels the empiriocritical view of the functioning of the central nervous system in terms of sensations, reactions to outside stimuli, assimilatory processes, and attempts to reach equilibria. It is clear that he believes neither external nor internal equilibria are possible for Diaspora Jewry, which he sees as an alien minority within a foreign body. Social change, says Borochov, will alter the social system, not human feelings. Furthermore, the revolution will occur in the distant future "if at all." The solution to the Jewish question is therefore Zionism and the negation of the Diaspora.

In the same period Borochov published his onslaught against territorialism, which he called "a failure which has been elevated to an ideal." He accused Territorialists of only seeing the negative basis of Zionism, i.e. Jewish misery, and not its positive values–nation, culture, homeland. He accused the worst of the Territorialists of "hatred of Zion." More important, he presented a broader argument that was in many ways similar to "Our Program." Borochov saw a pathological element in the Jewish situation. Denying that he advocated an organic theory of society (while using organic images again and again), he pursued one of his favorite analogies, that of a doctor and his patient. A physician would not try to cure tuberculosis with methods that encourage bacteria to multiply and strengthen. Similarly the social analyst could not recommend a cure for the Jewish problem by using what enhanced anti-Semitism. New forces had to be brought into play. A new scene of action other than the Diaspora was needed, and the problem could not be expected to simply work itself out; indeed therapy was needed. Zionism must be a "therapeutic movement" that would analyze the problem, the obstacle preventing its resolution, and consciously begin work on the basis of a prepared program. The effort must be organized and planned. Borochov contrasted this with "evolutionary movements" which worked out their problems within the natural flow of history–Marx and Engels, he said (somewhat inaccurately), did not discuss in the Communist Manifesto how to reach their goal.

Borochov called for an elite mobilization or organized, conscious, Bilu-like pioneers to lead the way in Zionism. Eventually Zionism would move from such an avant-garde enterprise to a "national undertaking," at which time "the inner historic necessity of Zionism" would focus on the internal forces of the people rather than the conscious efforts by the original voluntaristic elite. Zionism would then be an evolutionary rather than a therapeutic movement.[27] Borochov’s position changed radically in the following months and no doubt the Russian revolutionary events had much to do with this. The Marxist Zionism of Borochovism, worked out primarily in late 1905 and early 1906, went far beyond his earlier psychological assertions (although very important components remained), and presented a more materialist approach that cast aside the idea of a new Bilu for a focus on class struggle. The theory of Borochov’s "Our Platform" was more of an "evolutionary" approach. Nonetheless, it is important to note that many of his future ideas existed in embryo in structure. And of course Borochov vehemently opposed a Jewish nationalism that looked to any land outside of Palestine.




[1] Liuba Borochov, Prakim meyoman hayai (Givat Haviva Press, 1971), pp. 24-25

[2] Sidney S. Harcave, "Jewish Political Parties and Groups and the Russian State Dumas from 1905 to 1907" (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1943), p. 7.

[3] For more on Lieberman see Jonathan Frankel, Prophecy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism and the Russian Jews, 1862-1917 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); Moshe Mishkinsky, "The Jewish Labor Movement and European Socialism" in H.H. Ben-Sassoon and S. Ettinger, eds, Jewish Society through the Ages (New York: Schocken Books, 1971); William Fishman, Jewish Radicals (New York: Pantheon, 1974)

[4] Itzhak Ben-Zvi, "Labor Zionism in Russia," in J. Frumkin, G. Aronson, and A. Goldenweiser, eds., Russian Jewry (1860-1917) (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1966) p. 209.

[5] Jonathan Frankel, "Socialism and Jewish Nationalism in Russia, 1892-1907" (Ph.D. diss., Cambridge University, 1961), p. 357.

[6] Ben-Zvi, "Labor Zionism," p. 210.

[7] Author’s interview with Borochov’s sister, Nadia Borochov Ovsey.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Itzhak Ben-Zvi, "Neurei B. Borochov," in Ber Borochov, Ktavim nivharim (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1954), p. 9.

[10] L. Borochov, Prakim, p. 22.

[11] Shmarya Levin, The Arena (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1932), pp. 190-91.

[12] Ibid., p. 183.

[13] Ibid., p. 262.

[14] B. Borochov, Di Varhayt, May 13, 1916. See: At the Cradle of Zionist Socialism l

[15] Frankel, "Socialism and Jewish Nationalism," pp. 371-72.

[16] The essay itself is in Ber Borochov, Ktavim I (Tel Aviv: Hakkibutz Hameuchad and Sifriat Palim, 1955). Valuable discussions of it are in Mattiyahu Mintz, Ber Borochov: Hamaagal harishon 1900-1906 (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University and Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1976), and in Frankel’s chapter on Borochov in Prophecy and Politics.

[17] Mattiyahu Mintz, Ber Borochov, pp. 35-36

[18] Leseck Kolakowski, Positivist Philosophy, (Middlesex: Pelican Books, 1972), p. 125.

[19] This discussion is summarized from and based on the relevant chapters in Kolakowski, Positivist Philosophy; Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism, vol. II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978); F. Copleston, A History of Philosophy, vol. 7, part II (Garden City: Image Books, 1965).

[20] For the complex influences of Avenarius, Mach, and Bogdanov on Borochov see the lengthy discussion in Mintz, Ber Borochov; and Mintz, "Borochov veBogdanov," Baderech I (1967).

[21] Mintz’s Ber Borochov should be consulted for a more detailed biography. This award-winning volume covers the period up to 1906 and examines Borochov’s intellectual development in much depth.

[22] See Mintz, Ber Borochov, on the relation between Borochov and Ussishkin. See also Borochov’s correspondence with Ussishkin, edited by Mintz, "Irgot Borochov le’Ussishkin," Tzioonut II (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University and Hakibbutz Hameuchad Press, 1978).

[23] Menachem-Mendel Ussishkin, Our Program (New York: Federation of American Zionists, 1905), p. 1.

[24] Ussishkin, Our Program, pp. 1-2.

[25] Ibid. p. 11.

[26] The work of Weber (1795-1878) in experimental psychology was supplemented by Fechner (1801-1887), a Liepzig physicist and psychologist. For a short discussion of their theories see Copleston, A History of Philosophy, pp. 148-49.

[27] See they essay itself in Ber Borochov, Ktavim I, pp. 18-153 or exerpts on this website (to be added).