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Arthur Hertzberg on Borochov

From "The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis and Reader," Hertzberg, A, (ed.), JPS, 1997 (first published 1959), pg 353-354.

Within a decade after Herzl appeared in 1896 there was no major contemporary influence, from Tolstoy to Nietzche, which had not found a re-echo in some variety of Zionist ideology. The exception was Karl Marx. For Zionism, "scientific socialism" was the most unassimilable of all outlooks, for it pronounced nationalism to be, like religion, an opiate of the masses, a force being used by the capitalists to divert the proletariat from its true interests. Both Jewish and non-Jewish Marxists had always denied with special vehemence that there was any specific Jewish problem; the socialist revolution of the future, they asserted, would put an end to anti-Semitism and the Jews would disappear into the proletariat. To be sure Syrkin had argued against these ideas, as a humanitarian and utopian socialist, but he was not effective among the Marxists. A theory of Zionism that was expressed solely in terms of dialectical materialism was still lacking, and it was provided by Ber Borochov.

We are today too remote from the mood of Russia in the last days of tsarism, when Marxist faith that revolution was inevitable so permeated the young, to appreciate the impact of Borochov. By the same token, Marx's thought is no sacred canon to us, and so we are not moved by a theory of Zionism that is evolved like a geometrical theorem from "prooftexts" in Das Kapital. Nonetheless, in and for that time and place, Borochov's construction was a brilliant intellectual achivement. It remains significant today, and not only historically, because an important minority element in the Israeli labor movement continues to be Marxist in its outlook and to derive, substantially, from Borochov's early theories.

Borochov was born in a small town in the Ukraine but was raised in the city of Poltava. For some reason this town had been chosen by the Russian government as a favorite place of exile for revolutionists. Poltava had also been one of the first communities in which a branch of Hibbat Zion was founded and Borochov's father had been one of its active members. Both socialism and Zionism were therefore in the air duing his childhood. His highly intellectual and "enlightened" parents provided him with a first-class formal education, to which he added considerably by his own readings. Upon graduation from the local high school Borochov resolved not to go to university, he had already encountered anti-Semitism in his teachers at high school and he knew that more woudl face him in a Russian school of higher learning. Devoting himself to politics, he worked for a year in the Social Democratic Party until he was expelled as a Zionist deviationist. From that point his life's work ws Jewish national activity in workers' groups and the evolving of his Marxist-Zionist thought.

The next decade or so Borochov moved among the bewildering variety of splinter groups, and splinters of splinter groups, which were the scene of the nascent Zionist left. In December 1906, the Russian Poale Zion (Workers of Zion) group crystallized, and Borochov, aided by another brilliant young theoretician, Isaac Ben-Zvi (now [1959] the non-Marxist, very mildly socialist, and almost universally loved President of Israel), wrote its platform. After 1907 difficulties with the Russian police forced him to leave and he devoted himself to travel all over Europe as party functionary and propagandist. Concurrently Borochov was doing research in Yiddish philology, to which he made some basic scholarly contributions.

With the outbreak of World War I Borochov came to America. Here too he continued his careers as ideologist, writer, editor, and party official. The rigors of his Marxism were increasingly tempered during these years. By degrees he abandoned the orthodox faith of a material determinist, but he was never to write a connected exposition of his newer, more idealist, views. After the Kerensky revolution in Russia, in March 1917, he returned to his native land and died in Kiev in December of that year, at the age of thirty-six.

Borochov appears below in two aspects of his theorizing: we present first his use of stray hints of Marx and Engels to prove that the existence of nations in "acceptable," i.e., economic, factors [See The National Question and the Class Struggle (1905)]; the second piece, a selection from the platform he wrote in 1906 for the Poale Zion,[see Our Platform (1906)] revolves around his equally original, and in part prophetic, idea that only Palestine would remain open to large Jewish immigration and that an inevitable (he called it stychic) process would bring Jews there.

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