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Ber Borochov and Socialist Zionism (III-VII)by Mitchell Cohen (1984)

Ber Borochov and Socialist Zionism by Mitchell Cohen (1984)


Territorialism preoccupied the World Zionist Congress until its Seventh Congress in Basle in the summer of 1905. Borochov attended as a delegate from Poltava. During the congress and before–at a conclave of Zion Zionists organized by Ussishkin at Freiburg and at a preconference meeting of Russian Zionists–Borochov, acting in tandem with the Russian Zionist leader, found himself at odds with many of the Poale Zionists and Socialist Zionists. He had bitter exchanges with Syrkin and the Territorialists as well as other Poale Zionists who had been influenced by the Vozrozhdeniye. The Territorialists were defeated at the congress, the Uganda Plan was buried, and its adherents split from the organization.

Mattiyahu Mintz shows that Borochov’s anti-Uganda Plan activities, even before the congress, were largely aimed at Poale Zion groups and against Gegenwartsarbeit (taking part in Russian politics). His orientation was fixated on Palestine. After the congress, the Vozrozhdeniye-oriented Poale Zionists made efforts to unify the Poale Zion groups throughout Russia. This alarmed both Borochov and Ussishkin, and the former returned to Russia several months later enthralled with a new revolutionary spirit and preoccupied with the establishment of an all-Russian, anti-territorialist Poale Zion party. Throughout his efforts in this direction he remained in close contact with Ussishkin, who gave him assistance. [28] Yet his overall perspective was changing and his distinct theoretical formulation was soon to emerge. "He had gone abroad as a ‘general Zionist,’ " writes Itzhak Ben-Zvi, "when he returned, he joined the Labor Zionist movement and set himself the task of working for the consolidation of the new party, for its unity and cohesion." [29]

Immediately after the Zionist Congress he went to a meeting of Poale Zion activists in Zurich together with Liuba Meltzer, whom he had recently married. "Borochov attended as a visitor," reports Rachel Yanait (later Ben-Zvi’s wife), "He was still hesitant as to whether his place was among the "Blues" or the "Reds" in the Poale Zion and for the most part kept quiet." [30] The next few months were spent in Switzerland and Berlin where, among other things, Borochov pursued one of his favorite pastimes–exploring libraries. [31] It was also in Berlin that Borochov wrote one of his seminal essays, "The National Question and the Class Struggle."

By the fall of 1905, months of revolutionary disruption had shaken the Czarist regime. In late October a wave of pogroms again rocked the Jews. Caught up in the fervor of the times, Borochov demanded "money and arms" from the head of the German Zionist organization and made his way back to Russia, where Ussishkin sent him on a speaking tour throughout the Pale.

By December Borochov developed a center of his own Poale Zion followers in Poltava. That same month he matched wits with the Vozrozhdeniye at a conference in Berdichev. Borochov and the Poltavists argued that immediate work in Palestine was as important as the struggle in the Diaspora (which they now supported). Their foes presented the reverse argument and claimed that priority had to be placed on Jewish autonomy in the Diaspora, which was a necessary step to the far-off goal of territorial concentration and national autonomy.[32] The two positions could not be reconciled. Borochov turned to creating his own party and the Vozrozhdeniye became part of the Sejmists shortly thereafter.

"In the night of Purim 5666 [1906], wrote Itzhak Ben-Zvi, "delegates from Poale Zion groups from all the regions of vast Russia, from Lithuania, from the Ukraine, from Poland, and from the Crimea, assembled at Poltava in the Ukraine…At this conference all the existing little groups were fused into one party. It was a decisive step at a decisive moment… It led to ideological consolidation and the creation of an organization and political body of Socialist Zionists. Borochov was its ideological center."[33] Most of the meeting took place in a bakery on the outskirts of the city, where the Jewish Social Democratic Workers Party–Poale Zion was founded. The participants were eventually forced out of town by police raids.

The stars of the conference were Borochov and Ben-Zvi (then using his underground name Ovadiah). The latter was the only participant who had actually been to Palestine. Borochov proclaimed himself a "prognostic Palestinian": based on his analysis of Jewish realities, he believed that Diaspora Jewry was in an impossible position and that a mass migration of Jews was an historic necessity. This migration would occur through a "stychic" (elementary, spontaneous) process resulting from the inner dynamic of Jewish history. His key ideas were formulated in "Our Platform," which he wrote for the newly united Poale Zion.[34]


Three essays… "The National Question and the Class Struggle" (1905), … "Our Platform" (1906), and the later "Economic Development of the Jewish People" (1916)–reveal the full dimensions of Borochov’s Marxist Zionist synthesis. "The National Question" begins by attempting to define the relation between class and nation in materialist terms. Marx stated in his famous preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), that in "the social production of their lives" men enter into "relations of production" which are independent of their will. The relations of production constitute the property relations at the economic base of society. Revolution, said Marx, results from conflict between the developing forces of production and the existing relations of production. Revolution, said Marx, results from conflict between the developing forces of production and the existing relations of production. For example, as new, capitalist productive forces grew within the womb of feudal society, that society’s relations of production i.e. the feudal property system of lord and serf became (to use Marx’s terminology) a fetter on those emerging productive forces. Thus a revolutionary bourgeoisie was eventually bound to confront the feudal ruling class.

Borochov believes this analysis is essential to a materialist understanding of modern society, but insufficient to understand nationalism (which Marx, of course, was not trying to explain in his preface). Production, says Borochov, is dependent on different conditions in different times and places. Thus not only are their relations of production to be considered, but also varying conditions of production. These conditions "are geographical, anthropological and historical. Historical conditions include both those generated within a given social entity and those imposed by neighboring groups." The natural, geographical conditions first predominated in the historical and social conditions became primary. "We may," says Borochov, "and do speak of a relative distinctiveness of social groups only because there is a relative distinctiveness in the conditions of production under which each group must develop its life." Thus Borochov asserts that there are two basic types of human groups as a result of material, historical development: "societies," defined by conditions of production (peoples, nations, etc.,) and "classes," defined according to relations of production.

Whereas class struggle originates in the conflict between relations and developing forces of production, national struggles occur when the development of a nation’s forces of production demands better conditions of production. As such "the national problem… arises when the development of the forces of production of a nationality conflicts with the state of the conditions of production." Unlike "On Questions of Zionist Theory," Borochov here argues that the national struggle is to be understood primarily in material, economic terms. However, his materialist analysis is a concretization of the assertions he already made in earlier essays. The claim in "The National Question" that national conflicts are the result of a nationality’s quest for better conditions of production is a materialist version of his empiriocritical arguments in "On Questions of Zionist Theory" that all creatures, like nations, need food to replace energy and assimilate other nations when their possessions are needed.

"The National Question" goes on to develop several definitions. Borochov states that a "people," i.e. a social group developed under similar conditions of production, can be called a "nation" when its members develop self-consciousness. Thus the "feeling of kinship, created as a result of the visioned common historical past and rooted in the common conditions of production is called nationalism." And territory is the critical condition of production of all other such conditions. For nationalism to emerge, the conditions of production must be nationalized, as it were, unified over a given piece of land. Historically, this happens with the rise of the bourgeoisie.

Under normal conditions of production, class antagonism intensifies, whereas under abnormal conditions–and this is crucial for his analysis of the Jewish question–class and national consciousness tend to obfuscate each other to the disadvantage of the oppressed. For the proletariat, all this has special bearing because the worker is affected by the national question through his place of work, his territory. Class struggle can only take place where the worker actually toils:

The system of production of oppressed nationalities is always subject to abnormal conditions. The conditions of production are abnormal when… a nation is deprived of its territory and its organs of national preservation…or when it is hindered in the full employment of these. Such abnormal conditions tend to harmonize the interests of all members of a nation.

This hinders class struggle. Yet there is a progressive nationalism, that of an oppressed proletariat, that struggles to create for itself normal conditions of production, thus assuring a "strategic base" for class struggle.

"Our Platform," the lengthiest statement of Borochovism, takes many of these ideas and applies them more fully to the Jewish question as well as in criticism of the Poale Zion’s rivals–the Z.S., Bund, Bozrozhdeniye,.. In Galut the Jews are a classical abnormal, expatriated nation, says Borochov. Lacking material conditions of their own, the Jews are "helpless in the national competitive struggle." Borochov denies that any struggle is equally in the interests of all classes of a nation, and sees the roots of anti-Semitism in the competition between Jewish and non-Jewish petty bourgeoisie and proletarians. He develops his argument by analyzing Jewish class structure and tendencies. Jewish capital, he says, is largely invested in production of consumer goods rather than in the more basic means of production. Because of anti-Semitism Jewish labor is largely employed by the Jewish middle bourgeoisie. As that bourgeoisie is pushed out by national competition, it is forced to migrate and the Jewish proletariat will follow: "The Jewish question migrates with the Jews."

In "Economic Development of the Jewish People" Borochov shows through use of the 1897 Russian census statistics that the percentage of Jews in any given level of production "varies directly with its remoteness from nature," in contrast with other "normal" nations. At least 50 percent of Jewish workers were in trades producing directly for the consumer. The root of the problem was landlessness. He also argues that the Jews faced a special problem as capitalism developed further. According to Marx’s Capital, constant capital (i.e. the actual means of production, machinery, etc.) grows at the expense of variable capital (wages). Using a somewhat loose definition of Marx’s terms, Borochov claims that as machines displace workers, the Jews will face an even greater problem, for in the production of the means of production, few Jews were to be found. Jewish labor was increasingly displaced.

Borochov’s argument is that anti-Semitism, national competition (in which the Jews, lacking a territorial base, are at a disadvantage), and the continuing development of capitalism force a continual patter of Jewish migration, and make the abnormal Jewish conditions of production more and more insecure. Jewish labor, not employed by non-Jews, follows the migration of Jewish capital, and because of the competition the Jewish petty bourgeoisie becomes more and more proletarianized. Yet if "the Jewish problem migrates with the Jews," then a radical solution that does not simply lead to another inhospitable roadside inn is needed. The solution was proletarian Zionism; the "conscious Jewish proletariat" had the task of directing the migration. In the final analysis the abolition of capitalism and national liberation were the salvation for the Jewish working class.

The Poale Zion, under Borochov’s leadership and consequent to his new analysis, now actively involved itself in the revolutionary struggle in Russia.[35] However, since the Jewish proletariat developed in abnormal conditions of production, Diaspora struggles–including that for national autonomy which Borochov now supported–could only be palliatives. They failed to provide, in his view, a radical solution to a radical problem. He stressed that the Jewish proletariat lacked a strategic base. Employed mostly by the small Jewish capitalist, the striking Jewish worker had little impact on the equilibrium of the entire system of exploitation. "A chained Prometheus," he declared, "who in helpless rage tears the feathers of the vulture that preys on him–that is the symbol of the Jewish proletariat." As such, the Poale Zion maximum program was socialism, to be achieved by class struggle. The minimum program was Zionism: solely by attaining political and territorial autonomy in Palestine would the Jews occupy all levels in production, have a normal class structure, and a strategic base to join in the international struggle for socialism. In Palestine the Jewish class struggle would take place.

Not only does Borochov argue against territorialism and for Zionism, he tries to argue that the Jews would migrate to Palestine out of historical necessity. Real conditions, not just emotions, would lead them there because Jewish territorial autonomy "is being realized by means of processes inherent in Jewish immigration." Borochov argues that as migratory labor follows migratory capital, and since Jewish capital is being excluded from areas where there are possibilities for widespread land colonization and large industrial investments, Jewish migration will ultimately tend toward a land where its labor and petty capital can be directed toward basic industry and agriculture: "The country into which Jews will immigrate will not be highly industrial nor predominantly agricultural but semi-agricultural. Jews alone will migrate there, separated from the general stream of immigration. The country will have no attraction for immigrants from other nations." And, "The land of spontaneously concentrated Jewish immigration will be Palestine." This was Borochov’s theory of spontaneous, or "stychic," process leading the Jews to Palestine, a theory that has become closely associated with his name, but which is one of the least convincing arguments and was eventually rejected by him.

Palestine was ideal because it would be, in Borochov’s view, the only land available to the Jews. It lacked advanced political and cultural development, and would be a land in which big capital would find no possibility while Jewish petty and middle capital would. Thus Borochov was an antiterritorialist Palestinist by "prognosis" rather than by "principles," i.e. he claimed that the Jewish historical connection to the land of Israel was not the key factor. The argument is rounded off by a strategy of capitalist development for Palestine, leading to a normalized Jewish class structure, class struggle, and finally socialism.

Borochov had effectively reversed his earlier advocacy of an elite vanguard and now depicted Zionism as an evolutionary movement. "Stychic" in Greek means "elementary" and in Russian Stikhinost refers to elemental spontaneity. The movement in Borochov’s thought parallels a basic tension that permeated the nineteenth-century Russian intelligentsia. Leopold H. Haimson notes that he intelligentsia, alienated in Russia by their attraction to Western ideas, yet tied to Russia and confronted with the unreality of such ideas in their homeland, found themselves in internal contradictions. They looked to the West intellectually but could not be reconciled with their Russian feelings at the same time. Haimson says:

It is in this process of dissociation in the psychic life of the members of the intelligentsia, just as much as in their alienation as a "conscious" minority from the "unconscious" masses, it is in their world view and the more undisciplined feelings that they tried to repress or ignore that one must look in part for the origins of the duality of soznatelnost and stikhinost, consciousness and elemental spontaneity, the two basic conceptual categories under which so many of the intelligentsia were subsequently to subsume the conflicts in their own existence and the evolution of the world around them.[36]

This conflict later manifested itself in numerous variations: faith in the ability of an elite to make the world anew versus fusion with "elementary" forces represented (or rather idealized) in the peasantry, Marxists versus Narodniki, Bolsheviks versus Mensheviks. One can see the therapeutic as opposed to the "stychic" Borochov within this broad light as well.

For the Jewish world, it was not Borochov’s particular formation of the "stychic" process that mattered, but rather his presentation of a coherent ideological synthesis for those who were attracted to socialism and Zionism. By his advocacy of both socialist Palestinism, participation in Russian revolutionary events, and support of national autonomy in the Diaspora, he offered a clear alternative to the Bund’s anti-Zionism, the Vozrozhdeniye’s postponement of a territorial solution to the Jewish question, and finally to the Z.S.’s non-Palestinian territorialism.


The Jewish Labor Bund, founded in Vilna in 1897, rapidly had become an important force in the Jewish world and in the Russian Social Democratic movement, and was the largest Jewish socialist organization. As socialists, the Bundists were at first hostile to nationalism. Yet within the first decade of its existence, internal pressure as well as external (i.e. the growth of Zionism) forced the Bund to reevaluate the national question, leading to the advocacy of nonterritorial national cultural autonomy for the Jews, focused primarily on Yiddish culture. Nonterritorial autonomy meant that Jews on a personal basis throughout the empire were to be considered part of a Jewish nation and territorial concentration was unnecessary. Zionism, in the Bundists’ view, was a Utopia based on the fantastic notion that a Jewish state could be re-created. The real world, life, and the future of the Jews were to them in Eastern Europe, not in Palestine.

The Bund’s move toward a national position was not a painless process. Vladimir Medem (1897-1923) played a leading role in attaining a reevaluation. In his essays–published as a booklet in 1906 and entitled Di sotsyal-demokratye un di natsyonale fragehe tried to synthesize a Marxist approach with an analysis of the national question. His key concept at the time was neutralism, to which not all Bundists subscribed. Medem attacked both assimilationists and nationalists and sought an alternative path for Social Democrats. He opposed Lenin’s view that a nation had to be defined on the basis of language and territory, and argued that ultimately socialism alone would solve the Jewish question.[37] The continuation or destruction of the national culture of any particular group should be left to the workings-out of history: "We…will not expend any energies," he argued, "either to hinder this process, or to support it. We do not interfere; we are neutral."[38] The oppression of a nationality must, however, be fought on all accounts. A nation was defined as "the totality of all individuals who belong to a certain historic-cultural group, independent of the fact that they live in different territories."[39] Thus Medem’s program suggested that nationalities, defined on a cultural-personal rather than territorial basis, should have their own decentralized, autonomous institutions to conduct cultural affairs–and only cultural affairs. Political autonomy was not included. Medem called for a policy of neutralism on the pros and cons of the future of the various nations. In the aftermath of the 1905 revolution, the Bund, and eventually Medem himself, developed a more positive approach to national survival.

The fact that Jews one possessed substantial autonomy in a multinational Eastern Europe set the backdrop for these discussions as well. Before the nineteenth century they controlled their own internal affairs through administrative councils. The question of autonomy for nationalities became a major concern for Marxists in the multinational Austro-Hungarian empire. Since Social Democrats in Russia looked west for guidance on my theoretical matters, the impact of Austro-Marxists Karl Renner and Otto Bauer should not be overlooked. These two thinkers formulated an understanding of nationalism that paralleled that of Bundists in many respects.

Renner’s De Kampf der oestereichischen Nationen um den Stadt (1902) envisioned a state organized as a federation of nations rather than as a union of citizens. A nation was defined in personal rather than territorial terms [40] Bauer’s Die nationalitatenfrage und die Sozialdemokratie (1907) conceived of a nation in terms of "a common history as the effective cause, common culture and common descent as the means by which it produces its effects, a common language as the mediator of a common culture, both its product and its producer."[41] Bauer did recognize that lack of a common territory played a disruptive role in the life of a nation but did not make territory essential to defining a nation. His "comprehensive" definition said that "the nation is the totality of men bound together through a common destiny into a community of character."[42] As a solution to the national problem Bauer, like Renner, suggested a federal state and national autonomy. Of assimilated Jewish parents, Bauer admitted that the Jews were a nation, but believed they were losing their national characteristics. Tied by their class structure to capitalism, the Jews were doomed, as was capitalism.

Socialists were not alone in discussing autonomy at this time. Simon Dubnov (1860-1941), one of the greatest of Jewish historians, presented his own liberal, nonsocialist conception of a nation. He proposed three periods in the historical evolution of nations: tribal, territorial-political, and cultural-historical (or spiritual). He argued that "a test of the full development of the national type comes in the case of a people that has lost its political independence, a factor generally regarded as a necessary condition for national existence."[43] Such a nation is bound by its cultural, historical, and spiritual aspects rather than by land or economic interests, which are important primarily on a lower level of national existence. The Jews represented such a nation to Dubnov, for they were bound together by Judaism as a "body of culture," not simply as a religion. The main criterion of a nation’s existence was its consciousness: "I think of myself as a nationality–therefore I am."[44] To protect itself, he argued, the Jewish nation must oppose both the thesis of isolationism and the antithesis of assimilation. Instead, a new synthesis of autonomy must be asserted: "The chief axiom of Jewish autonomy may thus be formulated as follows: Jews in each and every country who take an active part in civic and political life enjoy all rights given to the citizens, not merely as individuals but also as members of their national groups."[45] Such autonomy would focus on three institutions: the community as a whole, language, and education.

While Dubnov was close in many ways to the spiritual Zionism of his friend Ahad Haam and did not oppose the development of the Palestinian Jewish community, he considered political Zionism as a political messianism that would be unable to solve the Jewish question. He was bitterly opposed to any negation of the Diaspora; as a liberal who formed his own Folkspartei during the storms of 1905-1906, he also opposed the Bund bitterly. He attacked the Bund’s claim to being the "sole representative" of Jewish workers, and shortly after the pogroms of 1905 stated:

They talk of "the right to self-determination" and even "national cultural autonomy," among the principles of universal freedom, but they do not care for the concrete development of national Jewish culture, for the organization of autonomous communities, or for national education, as a shield against assimilation which they consider a natural phenomenon.[46]

This last comment was aimed at Medem, who himself attacked Dubnov on a variety of points, including the idea that there was a world Jewish people. Lacking a unified Jewish environment, Medem wrote in 1911, one could not speak of a worldwide community of Jews–in each country the Jews were more identified with the local culture. Perhaps, he suggested, a time would come when one would speak of several Jewish nations.[47] This did not represent an isolated position in the Bund. During discussions in 1917 to create a Russian Jewish Congress, the Bund opposed making the problems of non-Eastern European Jewry an issue.

For Dubnov, the Bund’s approach was a thorough misconception. He argued that its emphasis on class rather than national politics was a catastrophic error for an oppressed nation like the Jews:

To all the arguments that the class struggle is natural and necessary, I answer: Yes, it is natural and necessary in so far as it stems from the true relationship between the forces of capital and labor among our people; but it has not yet reached a stage of such decisive importance as to justify its claim to be the supreme principle and sole guide in our social and national life. The class struggle is one of the factors, but not the only factor, and not even the most important one, in our life, and its influence on our national politics must be set in proper perspective and not artificially exaggerated and inflated. Even if we grant that the class problem will become the chief factor for us in the distant future, even then national politics will not have to yield its supremacy to class politics if this entails a danger to the unity and integrity of the nation.[48]

Seen in light of these theories, Borochov represents a middle ground that interweaves various aspects of them while parting company on the final issue–the ultimate future of the Diaspora. Like Medem and the Bund, Borochov sought an analysis of nationalism and the Jewish question that would both remain within the Marxist framework and face Jewry’s immediate crises. Borochov alternated between high praise of the Bund’s organizing and self-defense efforts and condemnation of its national program. Like Dubnov, he derided the Bund’s claim to be the Jewish proletariat’s sole representative. Borochov could accept neither Bauer’s nor Medem’s final conclusion vis-à-vis the Jews, i.e. their disappearance with socialism’s advent in the former case and neutralism toward such a possibility in the latter. A Dubnovian theory of the spiritual individualism of a nation was insufficient as an analysis of the concrete realities of national existence for Borochov, as much as he recognized the role of spiritual factors and supported Diaspora autonomy as a halfway measure in the struggle for Jewish survival. Like the young Marx, Borochov believed that the Jews survived because of history, not in spite of it. And for the Marxist-Zionist, positive national struggle did not necessarily preclude class struggle, although he was very much recognized potential contradictions (which were ultimately the result of the abnormality of Diaspora existence). The Borochov of Borochovism–unlike his earlier formulations and those of many General Zionists–insisted on class struggle in the Diaspora, struggle for Jewish autonomy in the Diaspora, struggle with progressive forces against autocracy, and concurrently, the struggle for Zion.

Most important was the radical opposition between Borochov’s prognosis for the Diaspora and that of this ideological foes. For Borochov, unlike Dubnov, Medem, the Bund, the majority of Russian Social Democrats, and the Vozrozhdeniye (but like the Territorialists), the Jewish condition required radical surgery. Diaspora autonomy, a necessary palliative, was simply not enough and failed to take into account the anomalous reality of Galut. In fact, autonomy offered nothing radical at all. The Jews had once possessed an autonomous structure in eastern Europe. To argue that autonomy was the solution was to argue for a modernized version of what once was, albeit in new conditions and shed of religious domination. The Bund’s demand for autonomy in a socialist Russia was a call for a cultural, nonpolitical reconstruction of Jewish internal self-rule. But it offered no truly radical critique of the Jewish situation, and certainly did not offer an economic or political form of self-determination. Similarly, the Vozrozhdeniye, in supporting territorial autonomy "in the long run," negated the urgency of the Jewish question while Dubnov, in opposing class politics, was a liberal who didn’t fully grasp the motor of history. A Socialist Zionist synthesis was the only real alternative.


On the same evening in June 1906 that Czar Nicholas II disbanded the Duma, Borochov was arrested in Poltava. The police found arms in the home of Ben-Zvi’s father and the Poale Zion leader was taken by the police after the arrest of Ben-Zvi’s entire family (with the exception of Ben-Zvi himself who managed to escape). Borochov spent several months in prison where he wrote (mostly on ethics) and conducted a "people’s university." As a result of his lectures there, several Ukrainian nationalist groups later referred to themselves as "Borochovist." Fearing that he might end up in Siberia, Borochov’s friends raised money for his bail and then arranged for him to disappear. After a period of living under a pseudonym, he left Russia for an exile that lasted a decade.

The following few years were a time of European travel, party work, and research. He began writing in Yiddish in 1907 (his earlier works were written in Russian) and became a pioneering scholar of Yiddish philology, "The Aims of Yiddish Philology" … and "Library of the Yiddish Philologist" appeared in 1913, the same year in which he spent months researching an unfinished manuscript, History of the Yiddish Language and Literature, at the British Museum. Borochov vociferously attacked those who, in their zealous advocacy of Hebrew revival, totally negated Yiddish culture. Among those heated polemics were "Hebraismum Militans,"… After helping found the World Confederation of Poale Zion at the Hague in 1907, he led the fight in the Socialist International for Poale Zion representation and then for an independent Jewish section of the International. One of his chief adversaries was the Bund, and it was not until the close of World War I that Poale Zion was accorded full rights in the International.

The different national sections of Poale Zion were not uniform in their approach to Socialist Zionist goals. Borochov, based in Vienna in the period before the Great War, was the leader of the left wing. Internal battle-lines were usually drawn between Borochov (leading the Russians), the Austrians (led by Shlomo Kaplansky), Palestinians (led by Ben-Zvi), and the Americans (who by then had Nachman Syrkin in their ranks). Among other things, Borochov opposed cooperation with the World Zionist Organization, which was dominated by bourgeois elements, and led the Russian Poale Zion out of the W.Z.O. Important strategic disputes in the Poale Zion emerged in the fall of 1909 when a series of conferences, first of the Russian Poale Zion, then of the World Poale Zion, and finally of the World Zionist Organization, took place. The Austrian Poale Zionists were advocates of cooperative settlement schemes in Palestine, along lines advocated by the German Jewish sociologist Franz Oppenheimer and favorably explored by the W.Z.O. Oppenheimer’s goal was to turn Jewish city-dwellers into farmers in cooperative agricultural settlements based on profit-sharing and self-reliance. The Jews would, as such, become "normalized" by the building of a laboring class tied to the soil. Such was the path by which Zionism would retrieve the land of Israel. As Oppenheimer put it:

We shall spread a net of farming colonies over the country which we wish to win. When one wishes to spread a net, one first drives in stakes at the points between which it is desired to place the net. Then one extends between these stakes powerful ropes, and between the ropes string cords are knotted, thus forming a coarse meshwork which may be made as fine as one pleases by working in smaller cords.[49]

It can be readily seen how far this conception was from Borochov’s notion that Palestine ought to be developed along a capitalist model (as a prelude to the class struggle). Yet even Borochov’s friend and comrade Ben-Zvi now supported this idea. The Palestinian Poale Zionists, having actually lived in the land, concluded that the Russian Poale Zion’s perspective was untenable. Even before 1909, Rachael Yanait records, the Palestinians’ view was that they "were moving far from the dogmas followed by Poale Zion abroad. One movement here [in Palestine] was shaped by the new life, by the actual needs of the workers who were winning the Land back by the work of their hands. The movement abroad must adjust itself to this new reality."[50] Kaplansky argued for the creation of a Jewish peasantry organized cooperatively, for he asserted that only those working a land could own it. In contrast, Borochov argued that the industrial sector was more important than the agricultural, and cooperative settlements would only succeed with outside (bourgeois) backing and therefore bourgeois control. In a country moving toward capitalism, such cooperatives would become isolated socialist islands. The strategy should therefore be one of a more normal class development, class struggle, and socialist revolution.[51]

Borochov lost on this and several other matters. The debate seems to have been one in which Borochovism was defeated by those affirming many aspects of Borochov’s earlier approach–a Ussishkin-Bilu-Oppenheimer pioneering synthesis. In retrospect it also paralleled in some ways the ongoing dispute between Marxist and anarchist models of reshaping society–the former through mass struggle, the latter through alternative community building. Indeed, during the period of the Second Aliyah (1904-1914), a second labor party (apart from Poale Zion) was formed in Palestine called Hapoel Hatzair (the Young Worker), whose orientation was much closer to the ideas of Proudhon and Gustav Landauer than to European Social Democracy.

When placed in the context of Palestine and the Zionist efforts there during 1900-1920, the picture becomes more complex. Borochov assumed a model of normal capitalist development in that land, leading to a proletarian class struggle against the bourgeoisie. However, while the new Jewish nation in Palestine was being "normalized" to the extent that Jews were more and more occupying roles in all sectors of the economy (like most other nations, but unlike Diaspora Jewry), this evolution did not take place in conditions that could be characterized as normal. The Zionists found themselves in a battle with the Turks, the British, and the Arabs. Facing vehement opposition to their very presence, Borochov’s class-struggle model was hardly tenable. Ironically, this was because of the realities of the national struggle between the Jews and the Palestinian Arabs. Given these adversities, the foundation of a Jewish laboring class became cooperative Jewish settlements which was then followed by an urban sector and trade union movement. On the other hand, while this labor movement led the way to statehood, Israeli society later drifted further and further from socialism and, as Borochov predicted, the kibbutzim more and more became islands of Utopian socialism.


Borochov made plans numerous times to go to Palestine, but circumstances always seemed to bar his way. With the outbreak of World War I he was forced to leave Austro-Hungary, after being briefly arrested (he was, after all, a Russian citizen, and Russia was at war with Austro-Hungary). Via Italy he went to the United States in late 1914. By now the epitome of the wandering Jew, he must have been haunted by his own words–"the Jewish problem migrates with the Jews." He spent two and a half unhappy years working for the American Poale Zion, editing and writing for several Yiddish publications, including Di Varhayt and the Poale Zion’s Yiddisher Kemfer. He was constantly at odds with the Poale Zion leadership, led a "social democratic opposition" to them and resigned more than once from party positions. In 1915 he launched a vociferous attack accusing them of class collaboration and calling for their withdrawal from the W.Z.O. He refused to pay his dues to the W.Z.O. and was even suspended from the party for a period.

Borochov’s Social Democratic current in the Poale Zion fought the dominant Socialist faction. He accused the latter of being 85 percent Zionist and 15 percent socialist whilst his own faction, to the contrary, was "100 percent socialist and 100 percent Zionist." Two polemics from this debate appear [in this archive]: "The Socialism of Poale Zion Here," and "Two Currents in Poale Zionism," both from 1915. It is also worth noting that rather than arguing for a radical negation of the Diaspora, he argues here as a Zionist that "Galut and Zion" just each be regarded as ends unto themselves. As World War I led to a worsening of European Jewry’s condition, Borochov called for a total mobilization of world Jewry to aid them. He played an important role in agitating for the creation of a democratic World and American Jewish Congresses to confront the realities of war, to prepare Jewish demands for the peace afterwards, and to reorganize Jewish life. The Poale Zion "was to act as a spearhead of the entire Congress movement at the socialist and at the general level of Jewish politics."[52] In this battle Borochov fought the Bundist dominated Jewish Socialist Federation, the major established Jewish organizations (like the American Jewish Committee), and the philanthropies which dominated Jewish life.

Borochov’s Marxist Zionism demanded that he support progressive politics in America, which he did, including approval of Morris Hillquit’s 1916 candidacy for Congress against the Democrat Tammany Hall, who ran as a Zionist. In an article entitled "Socialism and Tammany Hall," Borochov denounced Hillquit’s foe for debasing the Jewish national idea.[53] He also had little patience for many of those who spoke in the name of Marxism. On March 20, 1915 he wrote in Di Varhayt:

I can imagine Marx arising from the grave. Upon seeing his present disciples, he motions them away and utters, "I–God forbid–I am no Marxist."

Marx was undoubtedly the greatest thinker of the 19th century… But because Marx is dead and because new problems have arisen, we must think independently and arrive at our own solutions.

As a Jew, a socialist, and a former guest of the Czar’s prisons, Borochov could only be pleased when, in February 1917, the world came crashing down around the "little father" of the Russian people. Despite his enthusiasm for the revolution, he warned that "the two most important problems of our time–the social oppression of the working class and the national oppression of weak nationalities shall, despite the present revolution, remain unsettled."[54]

It was time now to return to the land of his birth. On his way Borochov stopped in Stockholm to await permission to enter Russia and to help prepare a Poale Zion statement for the Holland-Scandinavian Socialist Committee, a group of socialists from neutral countries who had banded together to develop a socialist peace conference and postwar program. The Poale Zion had continuously struggled to gain support from international socialism which was now badly divided by the war. Borochov met with the committee’s leaders and the Poale Zion demands were included in the committee’s "Peace Manifesto."[55] The Poale Zion statement… greeted peace efforts, attacked the "imperialistic governments" responsible for the carnage, and urged the international proletariat to lead the "bleeding human race" to deliverance. It praised the idea of a League of Nations, insisted that the Jewish problem be placed on the international peace agenda, and demanded equality for Diaspora Jewry and national autonomy for Palestine Jewry.

Poale Zion became legal in Russia as a result of the revolution, and Borochov arrived in Kiev in September for its Third Congress (the First was the Poltava meeting in 1906, the Second in Cracow in 1907). His Russian supporters were shocked, for when "Comrade Borochov" spoke he sounded, in many respects, like a pre-Borochovism Borochov. The party, already racked with divisions on Jewish, Russian, and general questions–they were Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and Internationalists–now found many of its members crying to "save Borochovism from Borochov."

Borochov’s speech, subsequently known as "Eretz Israel in our Program and Tactics," renounced his earlier conception of the stychic process, and supported the idea of constructivism in Palestine, including Oppenheimer’s experiments. He spoke concurrently of the need for class struggle and the "dictatorship of the toiling masses." It is evident that he had not yet thoroughly rethought his changing ideas; it is certain that in 1917 he no longer spoke as a prognostic Zionist he had in 1906, Ben-Zvi recalls that at one of his last meetings with Borochov in the United States, Borochov sided with him and with David Ben-Gurion–both of whom were then in the United States having been expelled from Palestine from the Turks–in asserting the need to claim Jewish "historical rights" in Palestine.[56]

In Kiev, Borochov said that while past debates with the Bund and General Zionists had imposed a "kosher" terminology on his formulations, more emotional words could now be employed: "Now we can and must proclaim ‘Eretz Israel’–a Jewish home!" Mattiyahu Mintz has shown that Borochov’s new approach led to such a storm that later the party only presented a censored version of the events for publication.[57]

In the ensuing three months Borochov was apparently at odds with the Russian Poale Zion over numerous issues. In the Ukraine, efforts were underway by nationalists to guarantee independence or at least autonomy for the region. Borochov was willing to go much further than the Poale Zion leadership in support of Ukrainian claims. As a delegate to the Nationalities Congress, he called for a Socialist Federated Republic for Russia, and proposed a Russia much more decentralized than the Poale Zion advocated. His own party’s publications gave him little coverage, and many of his public actions on the Ukrainian issue were taken while other Poale Zionists officially represented the party.[58]

What direction Borochov would have taken after the Bolshevik Revolution can only be the subject of speculation. That autumn he fell ill and on December 17, 1917 he died in Kiev, apparently of pneumonia. The Russian Poale Zion eventually split as a result of the revolution and was, in due time, suppressed like all other parties in USSR. One Left faction actually survived into 1928, and a "Borochov Brigade" fought with the Red Army during the civil war. Two years after Borochov’s death the Palestine Poale Zion merged with several other groups to form a new party, Achdut Avodah (unity of labor), which played a crucial role in creating the Haganah (defense), the chief Zionist underground military force during the British Mandate years, and the Histadrut, which soon became a powerful trade union federation. In 1930 Achdut Avodah merged with Hapoel Hatzair (the young worker) to form MAPAI (acronym for Israel’s Workers’ Party), which soon became the leading force in the Zionist movement. At its head was David Ben-Gurion, who began his political career in the first decade of the twentieth century in the Poale Zion in Plonsk, Poland, and who, in May 1948, 31 years after Borochov’s death, read the declaration proclaiming the birth of the Jewish state.

How is Ber Borochov to be evaluated today? What is his legacy? This has been perpetually debated since his death. Borochov tried at once to be a Marxist and a nationalist. He sought to fill what Lenin called an inevitable empty space between two chairs because that space was, for him, potentially an abyss. Yet in this endeavor he became a pioneering social scientist of the Jews, constructing an argument based on history and the analysis of class and social structures. His doctrine helped galvanize a political party whose successor led Zionism to victory, although that party parted company with much of Borochovism. When compared with his competitors in Russian Jewish left and liberal circles, his pessimism about the future of the Diaspora and particularly Eastern European Jewry, seems to have been borne out. While the catastrophe that befell European Jewry during World War II was not the dissolution of Jewry that Borochov foresaw, and while the stychic process did not take place, underlying Borochov’s argument and deep-seated belief that, given the evolution of Russia and modern capitalism, the Jewish situation was untenable.

Borochov’s legacy is thus that of a theorist and political figure who insisted on asserting the particular needs of his people without negating the internationalist spirit. His internationalism refused to be self-denying. In this century, when Jews have been advised to disappear for the sake of progress, or have been exterminated by fascism, Borochov’s vision still has much to say to those who hope for a different world.


[28] See Mintz, Ber Borochov for a detailed account of this matter.

[29] Ben-Zvi, "Labor Zionism in Russia," pp. 213-14.

[30] Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi, Coming Home (New York: Herzl Press, 1964), p. 199.

[31] Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi also later recalled a discussion with Borochov in Berlin on feminism, a subject which apparently had captured his interest. She recounts, "Borochov felt that there were no limits to what women could yet accomplish in intellectual and artistic fields. I used to go with him to the library every day, and one day among other things, he talked of the three hundred notes on the position of Jewish women from Biblical times to the present." It seems he later lost these notes, much to his dismay. See Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi, Coming Home, p. 199.

[32] See Mattityahu Mints, ed., "Shalosh te’udot me’yomai pulmus ‘vozrozhedniye,’ erev ve’idat poltava shel mifleget hapoalim hasotzial-demokratit ‘poale Zion,’" in Tzionut V (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University and Hakibbutz Hameuchad Press, 1978).

[33] Itzhak Ben-Zvi, "First Steps: The Beginning of Borochov’s Zionist Work," Itonut Avodah, November-December 1942, p. 7.

[34] It is generally assumed that Borochov wrote most of "Our Platform." Zalman Shazar’s memoirs report that Borochov was responsible for the theoretical analysis, Itazhak Ben-Zvi for material focused on Palestine, and a third Poale Zionist named Vitebski for part of the polemics. Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi also writes that her future husband was responsible for the Palestine section. See Zalman Shazar, Morning Stars (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1967), pp. 157-59; Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi, Coming Home, p. 209.

[35] See Harcave, "Jewish Political Parties," for an analysis of the Jewish parties in 1905.

[36] Leopold H. Haimson, The Russian Marxists and the Origins of Bolshevism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966), p. 7.

[37] See Oscar I. Janowsky, The Jews and Minority Rights (1898-1919) (New York: AMS Press, 1966), pp. 83-85. For additional information (in English) on Medem see Vladimir Medem, The Memoirs of Vladimir Medem (New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1979); Jonathan Frankel, Prophecy and Politics.

[38] Janowsky, The Jews and Minority Rights, p. 83.

[39] Ibid., p. 84.

[40] Ibid., pp. 30-31.

[41] Otto Bauer, "The Concept of the ‘Nation’," in T. Bottomore and P. Goode, eds., Austro-Marxism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), p. 103.

[42] Ibid., p. 107.

[43] Simon Dubnov, Nationalism and History, (New York: Atheneum, 1970), p. 80.

[44] Ibid., p. 98.

[45] Ibid., p. 137.

[46] Ibid., pp. 208-209

[47] Koppel Pinsom. "Arkady Kremer, Vladimir Medem, and the Ideology of the Jewish ‘Bund’," in A.G. Duker and M. Ben-Horin, eds., Emancipation and Counter-Emancipation (New York: Ktav and the Conference on Jewish Social Studies, 1974), pp. 311-313.

[48] Dubnov, Nationalism and History, pp. 218-19.

[49] Franz Oppenheimer, Co-operative Agricultural Colonization in Palestine (New York: Federation of American Zionists, 1910), p. 5.

[50] Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi, Coming Home, p. 96.

[51] See Frankel’s discussion of this in chapter 8 of Prophecy and Politics; Ber Borochov, "Haavoda be’eretz israel," in Ber Borochov Ktavim II (Tel Aviv: Sifriat Poalim and Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1958), Ber Borochov, Ktavim III (Tel Aviv: Sifriat Poalim and Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1966).

[52] Jonathan Frankel, "The Jewish Socialists and the American Jewish Congress Movement," E. Mendelsohn ed., Essays on the American Jewish Labor Movement (New York: YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science, no. 16), p. 209.

[53] Norma Fain Pratt, Morris Hillquit (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1979), p. 152.

[54] Joseph Rappaport, "Jewish Immigrants and World War I: A Study of American Yiddish Press Reactions" (Ph.D. Diss., Columbia University, 1951), p. 280.

[55] Janowsky, The Jews and Minority Rights, pp. 250-51.

[56] Ben-Zvi, "First Steps," p. 10.

[57] See Mattityahu Mintz’s introduction to Have’ida hashlishit shel ‘Poale Zion’ berusya, 1917 (te’udot) (Ramat Aviv: Tel Aviv University Press, 1976).

[58] Mattiyahu Mintz, "Ber Borochov vehaukrainim beshnat 1917," Shvut 4 (1976): 53-61





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