To Dance at Two Weddings: Jews, Nationalism, and the Left

Joshua Meyers

Too embedded in the Jewish community for Russian historians, yet too firmly linked to the Russian Marxist movement for Jewish historians, the experience of the Russian Bund in 1917 has long been sadly neglected in historiography. To date, there has not been a single major study of the Bund’s experience in the Russian Revolution, despite the party’s prominence. In the first years of the twentieth century, the General Jewish Labor Bund was the largest workers’ party in Russia. Vaulted into prominence in 1905 by its prominence in organizing communal defense against pogroms, the Bund emerged as on of the key political organizations active in the Jewish community of the Russian Empire. Even as the Bund’s membership dwindled under pressure of post-Revolutionary repression, it remained a preeminent force on the Jewish street. Once the Revolution of 1917 allowed the Bund to return to the political stage, the Bund, now an autonomous party within the Menshevik’s federated structure, found itself on the center stage of both Russian and Jewish politics during those pivotal months between the abdication of Nicholas II in February, and the Bolshevik Revolution in October. Using Soviet sources long inaccessible as well as documents in America and Israel that we are now gaining a better awareness of, my dissertation hopes to rectify this problem and provide a fuller understanding a party desperately trying to navigate its own contradictions in the midst of one of the great convulsions of the twentieth century.

Founded in 1897 as a strictly Marxist party, the Bund was founded with the intention of mobilizing Jewish workers within the Russian workers’ movement. However, in response to Zionist competition and as the result of the Bund’s key role in organizing communal defense against the pogroms of 1906, the identity of the party changed as members committed themselves to a controversial form of Marxist nationalism, hoping to secure Jewish cultural autonomy within a socialist federation. Initially opposed by all Russian Marxists, the Mensheviks quickly softened their criticism, but distance remained between the positions of the two parties. While the issues could be put aside in exile, the February Revolution of 1917 forced these issues to come to a head. Bundist leaders were forced to navigate this thorny issue while simultaneously confronting the incredible difficulties facing Revolutionary Russia, including, but not limited to, hostile invading armies, economic collapse, and severe social disruption caused by war and revolution.

Even while active in the larger Menshevik organization, the leaders demonstrated a particular devotion to the Bund. More than party loyalty, the Bund generated sentiments from its members of worship and love. While engaging in the broader politics of the time, they used their positions of authority to pursue a distinctly Bundist agenda, laying a significant foundation for national-autonomy in Russia, anticipating the eventual structure of the Soviet Union. Menshevik support proved crucial to allowing the Bund to overcome fierce opposition from within the Jewish community from Zionist and Orthodox organization, who had the support of the majority on the Jewish street. However, tensions often arose between Bundists and Mensheviks, as the federation became increasingly untenable even before the Bolshevik seizure of power delivered the decisive blows. The Bund’s experience illuminates new facets of the Russian Revolution long occluded from historical view. Moreover, it represents the first Jewish engagement with modern politics, an occurrence that coincided with those pivotal months that would define so much of the twentieth century. Trapped poignantly between competing ethoses, the Bund’s story is vital to understanding the Jewish Revolutionary experience.