Founded in Vilnius, Lithuania, in October 1897 by Jewish revolutionaries, the General Jewish Workers' Union in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia, popularly known as the Bund, was the first Marxist party in the Russian Empire with a mass following. A constituent member of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP, established in 1898), the Bund boasted a membership of some thirty thousand members by 1914 and rivaled the Zionist movement for the loyalty of Russian Jewry. It also played a critical role in the development of both Russian Social Democracy and a revolutionary Jewish labor movement predicated on Marxism and Jewish nationalism. The Bund best exemplified efforts to unite revolutionary socialism and Jewish nationalism in one political party.
The Bund emerged from the efforts of young, radical Jewish activists to organize Jewish workers in the northwest region of the Pale of Settlement, the border region of imperial Russia in which Jews were allowed to live. Beginning in the 1880s Russified Jewish revolutionaries established small circles of Jews among workers primarily engaged in handicraft production. The organizers hoped to prepare the circle member workers for socialism by gradually raising their political consciousness through propaganda, education, and exposure to the classics of the socialist tradition. By the mid-1890s these circles had evolved into fledgling trade unions devoted to the economic improvement of the workers' lives. The revolutionaries then sought to foment labor militancy and unrest by agitating among as many Jewish workers as possible. Because the vast majority of Jewish workers in the Russian Empire spoke Yiddish, not Russian, the Jewish activists recognized the need to reach out to workers in their native language. At the same time the Jewish revolutionaries realized the need to spearhead the struggle to end official anti-Jewish discrimination.
Subsequent to its founding, the Bund gradually developed a platform calling for the official recognition of Jewish national and cultural rights. In 1901 the Bund declared Jews living in the Russian Empire a nationality. Historians point to the inspiration of the writings of the Austrian social democrats Otto Bauer (1881–1938) and Karl Kautsky (1854–1938), who combined Marxism and Diaspora nationalism; the challenges posed by the Polish Socialist Party; and the growing influence of Bundists who embraced the notion of Jewish nationalism as the chief reasons for the Bund's decision. Despite its illegal status in autocratic Russia, the Bund over the course of the next decade expanded its role as defender of civil and political rights for Jews. The Bund demanded recognition of the Jewish people as a nationality with Yiddish acknowledged as the native language of the Jewish proletariat regardless of whether or not such workers were russified. In addition, the Bund promoted a secular, Marxist Jewish culture rooted in Yiddish by demanding the establishment of state-sponsored Yiddish schools and the right of Jews to use Yiddish in all dealings with the tsarist government. In a synthesis of socialism and nationalism, the Bund claimed that Russian Jewry was entitled to national and cultural autonomy regardless of where they lived in the Russian Empire, a principle known as extraterritorialism.
The following material illustrates the evolution of the Bund's embrace of national, cultural, and linguistic autonomy for Jews.
"The Convention deems that the term 'nationality' applies to the Jewish people" (Fourth Party Convention, May 1901)
" (2) The right, guaranteed by law, for the Jews to use their own language in all legal and governmental institutions. (3) National-cultural autonomy (on an extra-territorial basis): the removal of all functions connected with cultural matters (e.g., popular education) from the administrative responsibility of the state and local government and the transference of these functions to the Jewish nation." (Sixth Party Convention, October 1905)
"(5) All limitations on the use of one's mother tongue in public life, assemblies, the press, business institutions, schools, et cetera must be abolished." (Eighth Party Conference, October 1910)
Source: Mendes-Flohr, Paul, and Jehuda Reinharz, eds. The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History, 2nd ed., 419–421. New York, 1995.
The Bund's endorsement of a Jewish national identity not predicated on the end of the Jews' existence in the Diaspora distinguished the movement from political Zionism, which insisted that Jews establish a modern nation-state in the land of Israel. Moreover, the Bund also strengthened the conviction among many Jews that the negative aspects of life in the Diaspora could be overcome by remaining dispersed among the other nations of the world. The Bund believed that the solution to the Jews' problems could be found by applying the principles of Marxism to the conditions of life in early twentieth-century Europe.
The Bund's insistence to speak on behalf of Jewish workers wherever they lived in the Russian Empire led to a confrontation with its Marxist allies in the RSDLP and resulted in the Bund's decision in 1903, at the party's second congress, to withdraw from the party it helped create. Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924) and other leaders of the RSDLP vehemently opposed the Bund's insistence on extraterritorial representation of Jews as a threat to the centralized nature and ideological unity of Russian Marxism. By walking out of the congress, the Bund's delegates enabled Lenin and his supporters to win the critical vote on party membership, thereby leading to the rift between the Leninist (Bolshevik) and non-Leninist (Menshevik) factions.
The Bund played a significant role in the revolutionary events that swept the Russian Empire between 1903 and 1906. Not only did Bundists help organize Jewish self-defense units in the aftermath of the devastating Kishinev pogrom in 1903, but they also played a role in mobilizing Jewish workers and radical students, stockpiling weapons, and organizing antigovernment demonstrations during the revolutionary events of 1905. In 1912 the Bund sided with the Mensheviks when the latter's dispute with Lenin and the Bolsheviks over the nature of party membership and structure led at last to a formal organizational split between these two factions of the RSDLP. During the tumultuous year of 1917 the Bund's political fortunes grew, as membership in several hundred branches reached approximately forty thousand. But the establishment of a communist government under the control of the Bolsheviks spelled the end for the Bund in the Russian Empire. The Bolsheviks made it difficult for the Bund and other left wing political parties to continue their activities and eventually hounded them out of existence in the early 1920s.
However, the Bund in those regions of the Russian Empire situated in independent Poland after World War I continued to thrive. Along with Zionist organizations, the Bund in Poland in the interwar years played a major role in Jewish society and politics until Poland once again lost its independence when the Soviet Union and Germany partitioned the country at the end of the 1930s. The enduring legacy of the Bund is evident in other twentieth-century political movements that called for the national and cultural autonomy of minorities without linking such rights to a specific territory. The conditions that gave rise to the Bund in the Russian Empire no longer exist, but the appeal of extraterritorial national and cultural rights for minorities has been evident in European politics since the Bund's founding more than a century ago.
Frankel, Jonathan. Prophecy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism, and the Russian Jews, 1862–1917. Cambridge, U.K., 1981.
Levin, Nora. While Messiah Tarried: Jewish Socialist Movements, 1871–1917. New York, 1977.
Mendelsohn, Ezra. Class Struggle in the Pale: The Formative Years of the Jewish Workers' Movement in Tsarist Russia. Cambridge, U.K., 1970.
Peled, Yoav. Class and Ethnicity in the Pale: The Political Economy of Jewish Workers' Nationalism in Late Imperial Russia. New York, 1989.
Tobias, Henry J. The Jewish Bund in Russia: From Its Origins to 1905. Stanford, Calif., 1972.
Zimmerman, Joshua D. Poles, Jews, and the Politics of Nationality: The Bund and the Polish Socialist Party in Late Tsarist Russia, 1892–1914. Madison, Wisc., 2004.