Reminiscences

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Reminiscences  (1916) 
by Ber Borochov

On the Occasion of the Tenth Anniversary of the Poale Zion in Russia, 1906-1916

THIS PURIM will mark ten years of the founding convention of the Poale Zion Party in Russia. Ten years! It is impossible to transcribe the emotions that rise up on the mind of an "old" Party worker like myself when he is reminded of that memorable event. However, let us narrate the rather dry historical facts of the small, hardly distinguishable beginnings from which the convention arose. Let us consider also those historical events which raised our weak and limited undertaking to its present level.

Here are the facts. The convention, the jubilee of which we shall soon be celebrating was not the "first." The Party had actually existed five years previously and during that time had called several conferences. The Poale Zion idea, the concept of organic unity between socialism and Zionism, had already attained a quite respectable age. Our idea is not much younger than socialism proper. It was originally formulated by that celebrated German socialist and member of the First International, Moses Hess. A more concrete and modern form of Socialist Zionism was first propounded by our comrade, Nachman Syrkin, who is justly considered in our movement as its spiritual father.

Nachman Syrkin first developed his new and militant concept in his speeches and articles on the Jewish question. His lectures were delivered to Russian Jewish youths studying abroad, and his articles were published in Das Deutsche Wort in Vienna. Syrkin’s propaganda continued from 1898 to 1901. Its first tangible results was the organization of a group of "Socialist Zionists." Under its auspices in Berlin, in May 1901, Syrkin issued his widely circulated Russian pamphlet, "An Appeal to the Jewish Youth." This was the first official manifesto of Poale Zionism, even though it did not bear that precise name.

Syrkin’s ideas were developed independently, having little connection with the forgotten philosophy of Moses Hess. Similarly, in Russia proper, there arose an independent Socialist Zionist movement which had no relationship to Syrkin’s propaganda abroad. The first group of socialist, class-conscious Poale Zionists in Russia was formed in November, 1900, in Yekaterinoslav. Its founders were the writer of these lines and Simon Dobin, who later went over to the Seimists Party [Jewish Socialist Labor Party, non-Marxist, aligned with Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs)] and there earned a reputation for being a clever and wholesome Jewish writer.

You will permit me to say a little more about the first organization. From September 1900 to May 1901, the writer, who belonged to the Russian Social-Democratic Party in Yekaterinoslav, delivered a series of papers on Socialist Zionism to an educational club of intelligent young proletarians. It consisted of about one hundred fifty members. Dr. Shmarya Levin, who was then the government recognized Rabbi in Yekaterinoslav, delivered a series of lectures to the same club against the new idea. The lengthy and highly intelligent discussions, in which other prominent Zionist leaders participated (they were all against uniting Zionism and socialism), resulted in the club accepting the new viewpoint and calling itself the "Zionist Socialist Labor Alliance." Its first public appearance was in the organization of a self-defense group during the small pogrom of Pesach, 1901. Its second appearance was during the strike of men’s tailors, during Sukkot of the same year. That was the first strike of Jewish workers in this big city.

All these things are being disclosed now for the first time. The facts show, above all, that the first Jewish self-defense group was organized by the Poale Zion two and a half years before the Jewish Socialist Bund (in Homel, September 1903).

Let us now rapidly scan the history of the movement from 1901 to 1906.

The name "Poale Zion" was first adopted by a club in Minsk in 1899, under the leadership of A. Litwin (the now well known American Jewish writer), Berger, and Rubentchik, after the same group had denied the value of the class struggle in the Galut. They are the precursors of the so-called "Minsker Poale Zion" which united with the Socialist Territorialists in 1907. A socialist club with the name "Poale Zion" was formed in Odessa in 1902 under the influence of Yekaterinoslav and Poltava. Soon the whole of western Russia had scattered groups and organizations accepting the new tendency. In 1902 they issued their own illegal organ in Russia.

An interesting organization of socialist Poale Zionists arose in Vitebsk around 1903. Its theorist was Hirsch Z., a man of outstanding intellect who had a most tragic fate. (His pupil Chashin is now a well-known Party worker.) From Vitebsk, Poale Zionism penetrated into Bund territory in 1903-5 and spread over Lithuania and Poland.

In 1903 the movement was united with its spiritual father, Dr. Nachman Syrkin, through his paper, Hamon ("The Masses"). A year later there was formed the Vozrozhdenye group which issued an interesting paper. This group later led to an unfortunate split within the party.

Many splits tore our youthful movement to pieces in the years 1904 to 1906. The Uganda issue awakened territorial tendencies in many of the young organizations. Even that early fighter for Socialist Zionism, Nachman Syrkin, was for a long time carried away by the current. The territorialist sections [which favored the offer of a Jewish state in Uganda] seceded in January 1905, at their first convention in Odessa, wherein they named themselves the "Zionist Socialist Labor Party" ( the Z.S.). In August of the same year followed a second split forced by the Vozrozhdenye group which formed the party. They rejected Palestine together with all Zionist work.

At the Kiev conference of the pro-Palestine Poale Zion in July 1905, the Jewish Social-Democratic Party Poale Zion was constituted. Shortly after, it sent forty-seven delegates to the Sixth Zionist Congress in Basle. Following the congress, most of the delegates to the Sixth Zionist Congress in Basle. Following the congress, most of the delegates assembled in Zurich and chose a Central Committee. But the Seimist influence was already being felt, and the Central Committee did not have a chance to se the light of day. In December 1905, the split was completed at a highly dramatic conference in Berdichev. Two organizational conferences were held almost simultaneously; ours in Poltava and the Seimists’ in Kiev.

Thus came that great historical event of our movement, the "All-Russian Organizational Convention of the Jewish Social-Democratic Labor Party Poale Zion," which finally put an end to all splits. It is the tenth anniversary of this Convention that we are preparing to celebrate. [In a 1915 article, "Ten Years of Jewish Socialism," Borochov states that the party then had 16,000 dues paying members.]

The conference began on Purim eve (February 1906) in Poltava, in the presence of thirty delegates. Meetings were held under cover in the small room of a Jewish bakery on the outskirts of the city. For seven days and nights we sat and slept there, not taking a step outside for fear the Czarist police would notice us. The profoundest theoretical questions and the most difficult organizational problems were courageously and enthusiastically dealt with in that uncomfortable environment. Finally, the police did notice us, and we had to transfer ourselves hurriedly to a hotel in the center of the city.

Our "retreat" took place in perfect order, so that the enemy was unable to capture any prisoners of war. Our small army quite peacefully continued its deliberations in the hotel which we had forcibly captured by sternly warning the proprietor not to accept any other guests. But the police discovered us even in our new abode, and two prisoners fell into their none-too-gentle hands; but the minutes and other documents were carried to safety in time. We hastily finished the most important organizational work, elected the first Central Committee, and appointed a commission to draw up the Party platform.

The commission hid itself in a small town in the province of Poltava immediately after the police had surprised us in the hotel. There again ferreted out by the Czarist minions, we transferred ourselves to Simferopol, once more leaving two prisoners in the clutches of the government.

The result of the commission’s deliberations was the ideological strengthening of our Party. One of the resolutions of the conference was to establish the "World Poale Zion Alliance."

In the course of these ten years, the Russian Poale Zion has played an important role in the world movement. Our Party in Palestine is to some extent the product of the Russian Party. The same comrades who organized the movement in Russia, participated in establishing and leading the Party in Palestine. Russia systematically contributed editors to the Party periodicals in Austria, America, England, Palestine and Argentina. Russia was for a long period the foundry in which Poale Zionists thought was molten and cast for the whole world.

The secessionists, the Z.S. and the Seimists, who in the beginning far surpassed the Poale Zion both numerically and intellectually, quickly disappeared. Their influence over the Jewish community soon evaporated, because everything that was vital in their platforms was already in the program of the Poale Zion. We continued to grow in numbers and still more in influence.

The day is not far off when the Poale Zion will assume the leadership of the whole Jewish working class. That will be history’s judgement of the small, secret conference in the hot and dusty bakery where we were in constant fear of the police.