At the Cradle of Zionist Socialism

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We live in interesting times. Terrible, tragic, ugly, if you will, but interesting just the same. And it would be foolish to long for death before passing through them. But another time–I speak of ten years ago–was even more interesting: in any event it was more beautiful. That was the time that witnessed the founding of the Russian Poale Zion. This Purim will mark ten years since that event and Poale Zionists the world over will celebrate the anniversary. It will be a modest celebration, for our hearts are too heavy to indulge in merrymaking. However, those who were privileged to do battle in those revolutionary years will be filled with emotion. I related the historical facts of that dramatic gathering in the Kemfer-shtime, the central organ of America’s Poale Zions, but having the opportunity to address myself in these pages to a larger constituency, I shall summon up even more dramatic scenes.

The Jewish Labor movement has been splintered into four distinct Jewish socialist parties. Foremost, claiming to be the "sole champion," (of the Jewish workers) is the Bund. The Bund has long made its reputation on spiritual platitudes, boorishness, irresponsibility and a total inability for rational thought. But it acted like a Mr. Moneybags, a noveau riche, dispensing favors through its kulak, intimidating all the Jewish artisans and petty bourgeoisie. The Bund always tried to ingratiate itself with the Russian Social Democrats, who were not impressed and refused to acquiesce to the former’s ambitions. That’s how the Russian socialists are by nature–they fawn over brilliant sophistry and go mad for piquant paradoxes. Some theoreticians! And this is just what the Bund lacked. Plekhanov used to break out laughing: "The Bundist theoreticians, ha, ha!"

But a Jewish socialist not wishing to court favor with his foes, a person who can think straight and wants to fight hard, will run from the Bund as if from a wilderness. And he will be welcomed by the Poale Zion with open arms. But then the Poale Zionists were tearing each other up over conflicting theories. The spiritual father of Socialist Zionism, Dr. Nachman Syrkin, only made his amazing discovery a year after the sanctimonious Bund was ushered into life. Yet no one in Russia had an inkling of his new theorems. It was my lot to stumble upon the discovery of Socialist Zionism on my own. It happened in Ekaterinoslav in September 1900, and by November I had already founded the first Socialist Poale Zion group to appear on the globe. The group consisted of 150 souls–high school students who studied at home, and workers.

I belonged at that time to the Russian Social Democratic Party and worked under the supervision of the Ekaterinoslav Social Democratic Committee, which was responsible for the illegal paper Iuzhnyi Rabochii (Southern Worker). The members of that committee who still stand out in my memory are the Christian Pozdniakov (a fellow who was booted out of seminary for atheism), Tzavakoi the Georgian, and the Jew Taratatu. Pozdniakov–who had consumed prodigious amounts of knowledge–and I would drown ourselves in drink and heated discussions on Karl Marx and Richard Avenarius. Both of us–we were all of nineteen–knew Marx’s Capital by heart, and we would go agitating among the workers, Jews and Gentiles alike, pressing illegal brochures into their hands. I was assigned to read whole chapters of Bogdanov’s Short Course of Economic Science with the workers, explaining it with illustrations from everyday life. I do not remember what turned me into a nonbeliever. After meeting with both Jewish and Gentile workers, I came to see the truth of Socialist Zionism. The committee noticed my increasingly deleterious effect on the workers and charged that I was teaching them to think independently. I was quite unceremoniously given the boot by the Russian Social Democratic Party. Years later, Pozdniakov reverted into a devout Christian mystic, abandoning socialism altogether, and the Jew Taratatu adopted terrorist anarchism, falling in an armed clash with an entire pack of Cossacks. I have no idea what became of the Georgian Tzvokoi.

What does a banished Russian Social Democrat turned Zionist "infidel" do? He immediately marches off to a large Jewish home-study student union and converts them into the first Poale Zionists in Russia. Menachem-Mendel Ussishkin, the head of the Zionists in the Ekaterinoslav region, was a man of iron and steel. He actually boasted about living on the corner of "Iron" and "Stubborn" Streets, since these were really their Russian names. Sternly and categorically he declared, "I won’t let such heretical ideas past me." Dr. Shmarya Levin, then the official rabbi for Ekaterinoslav, was also not impressed by my socialist accomplishment and–in his inimitably refined and cultured manner–tried to drive home his polite but steadfast convictions. He even ventured to the seat of the heresy, the home-study union, to lecture against Socialist Zionism. The youngsters, however, paid their elders no mind and established themselves as the Zionist Socialist Workers’ Alliance. Its first order of the day was organizing an armed self-defense operation during the flash pogrom which hit Ekaterinoslav on Passover 1901. This was the first such self-defense group in Russia–i.e. three years before the Bund organized one. The alliance’s second action was leading the male garment workers’ general strike on Sukkot 1901–the first major strike by Jewish workers in southern Russia. It included over 300 laborers.

We shall skip how our young movement grew and spread throughout all of Russia and, in the next three years, through Austria too. It finally split into three parties: the Territorial Socialist Party (the Z.S.), the Diasporist Sejmists and the Palestinian Poale Zionists. Fate determined that your humble servant was positioned at the heart of these raging, schismatic, confrontations. That is why I remember them as if they happened yesterday. The Poltava regional committee convened the founding assembly of the Poale Zion, thus putting an end to the splintering process and making possible this tenth jubilee we are celebrating today.

The gathering occurred on Purim 1906 in a cramped, smoke-filed storeroom of a Jewish bakery on Poltava’s outskirts. I remember thirty delegates by name, and no less than thirty of them now work for the party. Such prominent comrades as Ben-Zvi, Zrubovel, Aleksander Hashon, Itzhak Zar, and Rachel Yanait were among these delegates. The thirty of us sat around for seven days and nights squeezed between four closed walls, not even once sticking our noses out the door, so that the Czarist police wouldn’t catch on. Thirty delegates from across the width and breadth of Russia–from Warsaw, Lodz, Bialystock, Vitebsk, Odessa, Kinishiev, Simferopol, Kev, Berditchev–all told fifty cities (several cities grouped into a region would send a delegate apiece to cut down on the participants–more people, more danger) eventually representing 16,000 party members in good standing.

Cramped between these four walls we ate together, slept on the hard floor and dispensed with mountains of theoretical and practical problems like the national question, the Jewish question, socialism, the Russian Revolution, colonization in Eretz Israel, armed insurrection against Czarism, the notion of a World Confederation of Poale Zion, trade unions, and so on. In the end the police got wind of us and we had to rush willy-nilly into an inn in the center of town. This "express shuttle" took off without a hitch and the enemy could not claim a single "prisoner-of-war." We stormed the inn and took it by force–it was one of the town’s showplaces–and warned the proprietor and waiters not to take on a single additional boarder. Here we spend the days like lords, going on with our deliberations. As God is my witness, we would have paid the proprietor cash for room and board had not the police finally broken in on us.

The enemy managed to grab two "prisoners-of-war," but no documents or protocols which we had safely secured. The authorities came out of all this shamefaced, since there was not a whit of evidence against the suspects. To this very day there are still seven pounds of dynamite buried in the bakery courtyard; another twenty pounds and seven set incendiary-bombs were discovered later when they arrested comrades B.Z.R. and me. But in any event, the Poltava regional committee held on to an arsenal in the event of a pogrom or any emergency which might arise. Following this debacle, most of the delegates rushed back to where they had come from, but not before selecting an ad hoc theoretical commission. The latter holed itself up for awhile in a hamlet in the Poltava district. In rapid flight before the scent of the Czarist spies, it reassembled in Simferopol. There it completed its mission of hammering out the party platform and, by the by, the Crimean region was usurped from the Sejmists; their illegal press was commandeered and the Poale Zion’s hold over Crimea was consolidated.

This is how things were done in those days… Our party was born in such trying circumstances. Its cradle was the Russian Revolution, and bursts of gunfire were the infant’s first lullabies. It’s no wonder, then, that the child grew up molded not from cotton but from steel.