The rise and fall of the Jewish Labour Bund

Issue: 135

Sai Englert

The history of the Bund, or Algemeyner Yiddisher Arbeter Bund in Rusland un Poyln (General Jewish Labour Union in Russia and Poland), is one riven with contradictions. It brought together tens of thousands of Jewish workers during its 52 years of existence in struggle against oppression and exploitation. It emerged out of the Russian-speaking Jewish intelligentsia and found itself at the heart of the most important Yiddish1 revival in poetry, theatre and literature. It rejected Bolshevism and was central to major polemics against Lenin, while at the same time laying the foundation for many of the organisational structures that we would call “Leninist” today. It professed its support for socialism and revolution, yet it joined the reformist Second International in the 1930s. It defended internationalism and saw its struggle as that of the toilers of the world, yet it organised solely Jewish workers and put specific Jewish national demands at the heart of its programme. It rejected Zionism as a “bourgeois reactionary” ideology, yet up to this day has a branch in Israel.

This article will attempt to shed light on some of these contradictions as well as to unearth a too often forgotten past of struggle, which goes to the roots of our revolutionary tradition as well as offering an alternative history of the Jews in Eastern and Central Europe to that of the Zionist mainstream: Jews resisting, fighting back and changing their lives, not the caricatured victims of history, longing to “return” from a so-called exile.

Through exploitation and oppression

At the end of the 19th century, Eastern European Jews made up the majority of the world’s Jewish population. They did so until the Nazi genocide. They resided mainly in a region called “the Pale of Settlement”. Successive waves of Tsarist decrees, pogroms, wars and forced migrations in the 18th and 19th centuries, concentrated around 4 million Jews in this area, “which stretched from Lithuania in the North to the Black Sea in the South, and from Poland in the West to ‘White Russia’ and the Ukraine, in the East”.2 It was in the 1880s and 1890s, mainly in the Pale of Settlement, that events took place which forced the Jewish community to seek collective organisation.

On 1 March 1881 the small terrorist group Narodnaya Volia (the People’s Will) assassinated Tsar Alexander II. Alexander II was, of course, the representative of a long tradition of violent tyrannical Tsarist rule. But he had also softened anti-Semitic laws in the Russian Empire, allowed Jewish students in universities and authorised Jewish emigration out of the Pale.3

After his murder, and with the crowning of his successor Alexander III, the era of reform came to an end and the Jewish people were once again the target of Tsarist decrees. Indeed, in order to deflect the rising tide of discontent against his rule, Alexander III launched a scapegoating campaign against the Jews of the Russian Empire: “Under Alexander III…224 pogroms took place between 1881 and 1883. Other sources indicate 215 pogroms in 1881 alone, most of which took place in the Ukraine”.4 At the same time, Jews were forbidden to work the land and between 700,000 and 800,000 Jews were forced to emigrate into the cities of the Pale. Jews could no longer work in the Tsarist administration, and in universities a maximum of 10 percent of the student intake could be Jewish.5

These policies pushed Jews into the expanding urban centres of the Pale to look for work in its workshops that were emerging. It also forced Jewish communities to organise collectively to defend themselves from anti-Semitic attacks. This process of proletarianisation of the Jewish masses was such that by 1897 “the number of Jewish workers [was] estimated at 105,000, which represents one Jewish worker for every three active Jews”.6

In this rapid process of forced proletarianisation lie the origins of the Jewish workers’ movement, as well as the explanation for the over-representation of Jews in the organisation and theoretical life of different political movements in the Russian Empire, from anarchism to Marxism in all its shades. As Kopel Pinson puts it:

The last decade of the 19th century witnessed the beginnings of active political agitation among workers. In part, this was due to the rapid spurt of industrialisation which set throughout Russia during that time. It was further inspired, however, by the growing policy of repression initiated by the Tsarist government against the Jews. In Lithuania and White Russia, in particular, economic and political activities began on a large scale. Here in the crowded urban centres of the “Pale”, among the Jewish workers in paint factories, the Jewish bristle makers, textile and tobacco operatives of Vilna, Byalistok, Smargon, Grodno and Minsk, as also among Jewish girls employed in tobacco and envelope factories, there emerged a group of class-conscious Socialist workers and intellectuals.7

Jewish activists were part of the early Narodnaya Volia, or Narodniks, groups of students and left wing intellectuals who organised acts of terrorism against the officials of the Tsarist regime, and hoped to spark large-scale revolt in the peasantry. Jewish participation in the Narodniks seems to have been short lived due to the unwillingness of the Narodniks to challenge anti-Semitism in the peasant masses or in their own circles.8

Later, as the Marxist movement in Russia developed into reading circles, which brought workers and intellectuals together in underground social democratic study groups, Jewish activists were once again heavily involved, particularly in the Pale. At that time the majority of Jewish intellectuals wanted circle activity to be exclusively in Russian, and thought that workers who only knew Yiddish should be taught the language of the empire. Russian was considered superior, and Yiddish, they argued, broke the unity between workers of the empire.

Finally, when the most advanced of those circles started to turn to agitation in workplaces and focused on organising workers in struggle, Jewish revolutionaries were once again at the forefront of the movement. Arkady Kremer, who would become a key organiser of the Bund and a leading member of its Central Committee (CC), wrote a pamphlet in 1893, On Agitation, in which he argued that the main task for social democrats was to turn their attention towards the masses of workers. The pamphlet was introduced by Pavel Axelrod, another Jewish revolutionary, who would later collaborate with Lenin on the newspaper Iskra, before becoming a leading Menshevik.

It was in the process of turning to agitation that the question of Yiddish emerged. At first the choice by the forerunners of the Bund to adopt Yiddish in their publications and agitational material was a practical necessity rather than an ideological statement about the Jewish nation.

The turn to agitation led to the organisation of the first workers’ groups. Although this took place in several Russian centres, it seems to have been particularly effective in the Jewish working class of the Pale.9 Jewish workers were often hired last because they were considered to be too quick to organise, strike or revolt. A Jewish factory owner in Vilnius explained: “I prefer to hire Christians. The Jews are good workers, but they are capable of organising revolts against the boss, the regime and the Tsar himself”.10

This is not to say that only Jewish revolutionaries were leading and waging arguments for turns in the movement. But it does suggest that the consequence of the dual experience of rampant anti-Semitism and rapid proletarianisation of the Jewish masses was a particular openness from Jewish radicals to the arguments about the need to do away with oppression and exploitation. It is in this context that the emergence of the Bund has to be considered.

Revolutionaries with a Yiddish twang

The Bund was officially established at a congress held in the attic of a farm near Vilnius, in today’s Lithuania. It was held in September, at the same time as the Jewish festivals of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in order to limit the suspicion of the Russian secret police, which was closely monitoring the 13 labour activists who met that day. The conference brought together “11 men and two women, five intellectuals and eight workers, who represented some 3,500 members”.11 They were all between 20 and 35 years old and the editors of two Yiddish agitational newspapers were present as well: Der Arbeiter Shtime (the Workers’ Voice) and Der Yiddishe Arbeiter (the Jewish Worker). The formation of the Bund was thus a process of bringing together several existing components of workers’ struggle. Vladimir Medem, one of its leading theoreticians, wrote:

The Bund! Founded? That is the wrong expression. It was not founded, but it was born, it developed, grew like every living organism develops and grows… A movement of instinctive attraction of the worker for the worker provoked the agglomeration of grains of sand, of little human dust in a block of granite.12

The experience of the rising wave of struggle forced Jewish workers to strengthen their collective organisational structures. The professional revolutionary, an activist paid by the members of an organisation to facilitate and support the struggles it is involved in; the agitational paper, which can spread political debates and news of struggles around the country while putting forward a political line to guide workers in struggle; a workers’ party to bring together the agitational and educational work of revolutionaries, were first thought of and tried out by the Bund. It is only later, after coming into contact with the Bund, that Lenin, among others, argued for the generalisation of these forms of organisation.

The high level of organisation of the Bund, as well as its organic emergence out of existing working class networks, explains the central role played by the party in the formation of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP). At the RSDLP’s founding congress in 1898, three of the nine delegates were Bundists and one of them was elected to the three-man CC. The balance of forces also illustrates how politically developed the Jewish workers’ movement in the Pale was in comparison with its allies in the rest of the Russian Empire.

Only a month after the founding conference of the Bund another Jewish group made its first organisational steps, although in a very different direction. The Zionist movement, rejected by the Bund from the onset as a “bourgeois reactionary” ideology, held its conference in Austria in October 1897. The Zionists believed that the solution to anti-Semitism lay in emigration to Palestine and the creation of a Jewish state that had the backing of imperial powers. The conference “was a dazzling affair: over 200 men wearing frock coats and white ties and about 20 elegantly attired women observers gathered at Basel’s ornate Stadt Casino; the galleries were crowded with distinguished visitors, Jews and Christians, alike; and correspondents from all over Europe filed long reports about the proceedings”.13

It is no chance of history that both conferences took place almost simultaneously. Indeed, if they brought together different crowds on the basis of different politics, they had nonetheless two important similarities: they were responses to the rise of anti-Semitism across Europe—from Eastern European pogroms to the French Dreyfus affair—and saw Jewish self-organisation as the way to defeat it.

The difference was class. The Jewish workers of the Pale saw their liberation linked directly with their struggle against exploitation. They wanted to do away with the pogromist and the boss at the same time. The Zionist movement on the other hand was an association of assimilated middle class Jews, frustrated by the barriers of anti-Semitism to their social ascent. They saw the solution in the creation of a state through colonisation.

The national question

The Bund rejected the claims made by anti-Semites and Zionists alike, that there was such a thing as a world Jewry with a common culture or plight. It also opposed what it called “emigrationism”, the idea, supported by the Zionists, that the problems of the Jews could only be solved in a Jewish state in Palestine. The Bund argued that the Jewish state would be yet another class-ridden society in which Jewish workers would have to fight their Jewish bosses. The Bundists defended the right of Palestinians to organise against Jewish colonisation. In 1929, for example, the Bund defended the Palestinians riots, which were depicted by the Zionists as anti-Semitic rather than anti-colonial.14

For the Bund, the world in its entirety had to be changed, class society had to be overthrown completely and everywhere, and this was a struggle that began at home. The Bund called this doykayt (literally “here-ness”). However, the Bund disagreed on two fundamental questions with the wider revolutionary movement: nationality and organisation.

The Bund’s decision to organise Jewish workers grew out of material conditions: anti-Semitism and the enforced geographical separation of Jewish and gentile workers. The Bund itself was conscious of that fact. In its report to the International Socialist Congress in 1900 it explained:

The first Jewish intellectuals who started to carry on propaganda among Jewish workers had no idea of creating a specifically Jewish labour movement. Confined to the Pale and not having the possibilities to dedicate their energies to the Russian labour movement, they were forced willy-nilly to start working among the Jews, and thus at least quench to some degree their thirst for revolutionary activity.15

It is also worth saying that segregation was not the same everywhere. For example:

in such industrial centres as Bialystok and Lodz, where large contingents of Jewish and non Jewish workers resided, in close proximity. In such cases, relations between Jewish and gentile workers often held the key to the success or failure of a given strike.16

Yet the Bund took it for granted from its very inception that the task of fighting anti-Semitism was that of the Jewish workers, rather than the working class as a whole. The implication was that Jewish workers needed to organise themselves into a separate Jewish workers’ organisation. For example, Kremer declared at the founding congress of the Bund: “We will also have the special task of defending the particular interests of Jewish workers, conducting a struggle for their civil rights, and above all, waging a campaign against anti-Jewish legislation”.17

The Bund considered the Russian Jews a nationality, in the sense that the Yiddish speaking Jews of the empire formed a nation, and that the revolution would deliver national autonomy for all oppressed nationalities.

At its fourth Congress in April 1901 in Bialystok it passed a motion to the effect that “Russia, which is made up of many different nations, will in the future be transformed into a federation of nationalities, and that each will have full autonomy independent of the territory in which it resides”.18

This position came from the Austrian Marxists, who called for a similar federalist solution to the “national question” in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As Rick Kuhn points out:

National cultural autonomy was a means by which the German-Austrian leadership [of the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Austria—SDAPÖ] reconciled social democracy to its own identification with the German-dominated Austrian imperial state and its unpreparedness to support the break-up of the empire. The SDAPÖ’s own federal structure represented a capitulation to nationalism within the workers’ movement.19

The Bund saw the revolution as opening the possibility for legislation that would combat anti-Semitism and offer a degree of cultural freedom and protection to the Jews, through the creation of autonomous cultural entities across the empire. It disputed the idea that what it considered to be Jewish problems could be solved or addressed by non-Jewish organisations.20

The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, argued “to integrate the Jewish workers’ movement into the wider workers’ movement and to make the fight for Jewish equal rights, and unequivocal hostility to all forms of anti-Semitism, an integral part of the revolutionary programme”.21 They rejected the idea that workers could change the world without simultaneously fighting oppression—whatever their creed.

The tensions between the Bund and the RSDLP ran high on this matter. At the 1903 conference of the RSDLP in Brussels the Bund demanded “recognition as the sole representative of the Jewish proletariat and that no territorial limitations be placed on its activities”;22 in other words all Jewish members of the RSDLP would become members of the Bund. The so-called “Jewish question” and its organisational consequences fed the wider debates over organisation inside the RSDLP. It is in the light of this wider debate that the split with the Bund needs to be understood.

Lenin is often accused of having engineered the split in the RSDLP. The truth is more complicated. Lenin was not prepared to accept the Bund as the sole representative of all Jewish workers, but neither did he want to expel them from the RSDLP.23 In the course of the conference unexpected divisions appeared on the question of organisation between the previously united board of the Iskra newspaper. These divisions would prove to be the breaking point of a united party.

During the debates both Martov and Lenin were formulating and clarifying their respective understanding of the party—as a vanguardist body for Lenin and an open mass party for Martov. It is worth noting that this interpretation is disputed by Lars Lih who argues that Lenin’s conception of the party was not yet fully formulated and that therefore the debate was mainly focused on tactics.24 He describes the issues at the conference as “dense and tangled, combining personal animosities, organisational jockeying for position and genuine difference in revolutionary tactics”.25 Nonetheless, the further development of the different positions led to fundamentally incompatible organisational structures and political positions.

Whatever the reason may have been, the conference turned into complete disunity. In this context it was impossible to compromise on the Bund’s demands, and the Bund left the RSDLP.26 The RSDLP split further into the majority and the minority—the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.

Tried in the fire of the dress rehearsal

In 1905 Russia was losing the war with Japan. The hardships put on soldiers and the poor ignited revolt, then revolution. The unrest had started in 1904 with a strike in the Putilov works in St Petersburg. It was rapidly followed by solidarity strikes, with up to 80.000 workers walking out. In early 1905 the Orthodox priest and police informant Father Gapon led a march to the Tsar’s Winter Palace. Demonstrators were peaceful, sang religious hymns glorifying the Tsar, and wanted to deliver him a petition. The army opened fire on them, sparking mass outrage and protest. In the Black Sea the starved and demoralised sailors of the now famous Battleship Potemkin revolted against their officers, killing seven and arresting 11. The revolt quickly spread across the Tsarist empire and demonstrations and strikes developed in most of its towns and cities.

The Pale was engulfed in the revolutionary wave. Workers of all nationalities (mainly Russians, Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Germans and Jews in the Pale) revolted against the Tsar, for better pay and against oppression. The Bund “fought with devotion, played a key role in most events of the revolution, and suffered the largest casualties during the clashes with the Russian army and police”.27 Indeed, the Bund threw its entire apparatus into the building of the revolution. Its press celebrated the strikes and demonstrations and argued for more action against the Tsar. In workplaces its members agitated and built Jewish trade unions (illegal in Tsarist Russia) across the Pale. At the same time the Bund organised against those who tried to derail the revolution by dividing the movement through anti-Semitic propaganda and pogroms. It organised Jewish workers’ self-defence squads.

It is difficult to judge the precise effectiveness of the Bund’s action. It is, however, safe to say that it put itself at the centre of the revolution and was largely recognised for it. Between January 1905 and October 1906 its membership exploded to between 33,000 and 40,000. In the city of Lodz for example, an industrial centre of the Pale where 29.4 percent of the population was Jewish, it rocketed from 100 to 1,600 members. It organised student groups in the gymnasiums and universities, and built nine trade unions, which organised about 3,500 workers. The Bund’s self-defence squads broke up three attempts at organising pogroms between 1905 and 1906.28

But the revolution was defeated. It went down in history, in Lenin’s words, as the “dress rehearsal” for the 1917 Revolution. The regime survived and defeated the revolutionary outburst through a mixture of heavy state repression, economic decay and nominal reform, for example the creation of a parliament, the Duma. If the Bund dealt well with the outbreak of the revolution, defeat almost dragged it into oblivion. By the end of the year 1907 the Bund was virtually decimated.29 In Lodz its membership fell back approximately to where it was before the revolution by 1908, and in 1910 it only had two trade unions, which organised 144 workers.30

As a consequence of the loss of the majority of its members and the demoralisation that hit the working class, the Bund’s activity turned from organising illegal trade unions and agitating in workplaces to the creation of a network of cultural organisations (mainly Yiddish schools) and participation in local Jewish elections.31

It was, of course, necessary to re-evaluate the possibilities of agitation after a revolutionary defeat, but the Bund’s turn led it down a different political path. Indeed, when the Bund re-emerged from near collapse in 1911 it was a close ally of the Mensheviks, having moved to the right of the Russian revolutionary movement.

This tendency of the Bund to be a victim of the ebbs and flows of the class, rather than fighting for a clear strategy and adapting it to the circumstances, stayed with it throughout its history. Partly this was due to the workerist tendency that had developed in the organisation after the turn to agitation that led it to explain the behaviour of the working class rather than attempting to lead it. Partly, its focus on a particular and isolated section of the working class (both a voluntary and involuntary isolation) limited its ability to judge the workers’ movement as a whole.

As a matter of fact, all of the revolutionary tendencies in the Russian Empire entered a period of crisis and isolation. The Bolsheviks did not escape this tendency, but their “organised retreat”, as Lenin called it, allowed them to protect an active and disciplined core while weathering the storm of repression and crisis. The Bolshevik approach rested on two pillars: firstly, the recognition of a need to change their tactics to fit the new period and, secondly, the expulsion of those ultra-leftist elements who refused to accept the need to adapt. Lenin explained that political survival was possible only because the Bolsheviks “ruthlessly exposed and expelled the revolutionary phrasemongers, those who did not wish to understand that one had to retreat, that one had to know how to retreat”, and because they understood that it was necessary “to work in the most reactionary of parliaments, in the most reactionary of trade unions, co-operatives and insurance societies and similar organisations”.32

From one to two Bunds

The outbreak of the First World War and the invasion of Poland by the German army had two consequences for the Bund: to divide the Pale and therefore the Bund geographically, and create different conditions for the Russian and Polish Bund.

As the war deepened and it became clear that Poland would not return under Russian control any time soon, it was no longer possible to organise in a unified Bund. The CC of the Bund appointed a new committee in Warsaw, which in practice became the new leadership of the Polish Bund as soon as it was appointed in 1914.33 The split was made official in December 1917.

The second, and perhaps more surprising, consequence of the German invasion was that the political field became much more open to the Jews in German-occupied Poland. Indeed, the anti-Semitic laws and institutions of the Tsarist empire disappeared and German standards applied. This meant that “Jewish educational, cultural, political, social, and economic institutions mushroomed”.34 The result was greater political freedom for the Polish Bund. For example, Medem received a permit from the German occupying forces to print the paper of the Polish Bund: Lebensfragn.35

The Polish Bund intensified what had been its organisational focus since the revolutionary defeat and would become the backbone of its organisation in Poland: Yiddish education. Nathan Cohen explains:

The changes in government, and the enormous numbers of refugees, gave greater freedom of action to organisations and institutions that were willing to lend assistance and thus, under the pretext of private volunteer activities, two early childhood teachers opened the first children’s home, named in memory of Bronslav Groser.36

The education network of the Bund in Poland would keep expanding and is considered today as one of the greatest achievements of the Polish Bund. It is worth noting that this liberalisation under German rule was part of the German war propaganda at the time. The Germans claimed they were invading Poland in order to save its Jewish population, which led it to be the main attention of Zionist hope for an imperial sponsor in Palestine, alongside France and Britain.

The Russian Bund kept fighting as part of the Russian workers’ movement against Tsarist anti-Semitism and exploitation, while the Polish Bund, now in a separate Polish territory, had to relate to its new circumstance. It did not use the political relaxation to throw itself into agitation, but to develop a network of Jewish culture, education and sports.

It is with these split structures that the Bund responded to the outbreak of the 1917 Russian Revolution.

The universalising pull of the revolution

The effect of the war in Russia was to usher in a second, successful, revolution. It is impossible to do justice to the Russian Revolution in this article, but it is important to mention the impact it had on Jewish workers across the Russian Empire. Indeed, while sweeping away Tsarist rule and opening up the possibility for workers’ power in Russia, the revolution also started to erode what Frederick Engels called “the muck of ages”. Oppression, under all its guises, was challenged both by the experience of struggle and the conscious role of the Bolsheviks.

Of course, the attraction of the Russian Revolution for the Jewish workers has to be understood as part of the general effect it had on workers across Russia. The creation of workers’ councils, direct involvement in the running of workplaces and communities, and the promises of a better tomorrow without exploitation or oppression rallied hundreds of thousands to the communist cause. But two other factors are significant for the Jewish communities in the Russian Empire. The first one is the immediate withdrawal by the Soviet government of the Tsarist
anti-Semitic laws:

The revolution decreed the abolition of all forms of national discrimination; the soviet government engaged an effective struggle against anti-Semitism; the abolition of the zone of residence allowed Jews to circulate and disperse freely on the entire territory of the country, the proclamation of the equality of all citizens opened the doors [to Jews] of the new administration.37

The October Revolution showed the possibility of making true the promises of the French Revolution and challenged the idea that anti-Semitism is inevitable or that Jewish and gentile workers do not share common needs and goals. The Bund suffered from this universalising tendency, as its base was pulled into the whirlwind of revolution.

The second point of attraction of the Bolsheviks appeared during the civil war. The White armies, organised by the old rulers of the empire and supported economically and militarily by European and American powers, attempted to crush the revolution. One of the ways in which they attempted to do so was by mobilising the old reactionary ideas of the Russian peasantry by organising pogroms up and down the country.38 The Bolsheviks equated anti-Semitic pogroms with counter-revolutionary activity and applied martial law to pogromists. This stance earned the Bolsheviks great respect in the Jewish masses of the empire: “Numerous are the [Jews] who, during the civil war or at its end, joined the Communist Party, swelled the ranks of its new administration, or enrolled in the Red Army”.39

The role of the Bolsheviks in the protection of Jewish communities during the Civil War also explains the splits in all the Jewish organisations of the empire, and clarifies the Bolsheviks’ position on liberation being a central part of a successful revolution. Not only did numerous Jewish workers join the ranks of the Bolsheviks but they were also deeply integrated in its structures and leadership. At the end of the civil war, “at the tenth congress of the Bolshevik Party, in March 1921, out of 694 delegates, 94 were Jewish… In the Central Committee of the Bolshevik party elected in March 1918, five members out of 15 were Jewish”.40

In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, in addition to a struggle against anti-Semitism led at all levels of the new state, a new cultural and social front was opened by the revolution. At the state level this can be seen in the creation of the Yesvetika, a centre for the promotion of Jewish revolutionary culture.

This revolutionary renewal was mainly based around Yiddish, although Russian texts and influences can be found in its publications too.41 In the myriad of local sections that sprang up around the Soviet territory a new life was brought into Yiddish culture theatre, literature and poetry, and new education centres saw the day.42 Alain Brossat and Sylvia Klingberg, who are both otherwise critical of the Bolsheviks for “playing down Jewish political specificities”, cannot but describe the early 1920s Jewish cultural revival in laudatory terms:

It is nonetheless difficult to negate the reality of the Jewish cultural rebirth in the USSR in the 1920s, rebirth attested to by the remarkable development of Jewish theatre in this period, by the intensive and non-uniform Yiddish literary production, by the establishment of Jewish schools, etc. What characterises this cultural boom, this mutation, is that it is a direct consequence of real political factors.43

The expression of political liberation and cultural renewal of Jewish life in the early 1920s are the symptoms of a revolution in which the liberation of oppressed communities was becoming a reality.

Since the war had split the Bund in half, across two national entities, the experience of revolution hit the Russian Bund with full force, while its Polish counterpart only experienced the ripples of revolution. It is true that the revolutionary wind unleashed in Russia swept over the entire surface of the globe, but not always in straightforward ways.


As during the 1905 Revolution, the Bund immediately threw everything into the revolution. The impact of its militants can be seen, for example, with Henryk Ehrlich, a leading member of the Bund, being elected to the executive committee of the Petrograd Soviet, possibly the most powerful body of the revolution. But as the revolution deepened from a political to a social revolution in October, the organisation broke in half.

The leadership of the Bund condemned the deepening of the revolution as a “Bolshevik coup”.44 At the same time, the mass of the Russian Bundist membership identified with the Bolsheviks and understood that they were the only organisation leading the revolution forward. A majority of the Russian Bund voted to accept the 21 points, the condition of membership of the Communist International (Comintern), launched by the Bolsheviks in 1918.45 The Russian Bund then integrated into the Communist Party, first in the Ukraine in 1919. Then, across the former Russian empire, the local branches of the Communist Party and the Bund merged.46 In 1921, after heated debates both with the Bolsheviks and inside the organisation, the Russian Bund dissolved itself completely.47

The Bund was not the only Jewish organisation that found itself pulled apart in the midst of revolution. The Poalei Zion, a so-called Marxist-Zionist organisation, itself had minority splits, which joined the Comintern.48

Many critics of the Bolsheviks and historians of the Bund (and indeed the leadership of both Russian and Polish Bunds at the time) describe the dissolution of the Russian Bund as a loss for the Jewish movement and a consequence of Bolshevik tyranny. What they fail to account for is the democratic nature of the dissolution of the Bund. The revolution opened up the door to a million new possibilities, to a new society built by and for the many. Despite its theory that anti-Semitism had to be addressed by Jewish workers, the Bund was thrown into a revolutionary struggle in which Jewish and gentile workers fought side by side against oppression and exploitation. The Bolsheviks fought against
anti-Semitism with the same determination as the hardest cadres of the Bund. The idea that only Jews could and would oppose anti-Semitism gave way to joint struggle with gentile workers. In the struggle against exploitation and the system as a whole, anti-Semitism no longer looked like a Jewish problem inflicted by all gentiles, but a problem for all workers, enshrined in exploitative structures.


In Poland, however, where the experience of the revolution was less direct, its consequences were more contradictory. This was also reinforced by the fact that the old leadership of the Bund, until then in Russia, emigrated to Poland as the Bund and the Bolsheviks merged. For example, Ehrlich and Victor Alter, who was a leading Bundist in Moscow and the Ukraine, left Russia and assumed a leadership role in the Polish Bund. They represented the more anti-Bolshevik elements of the Bund, and carried real political weight in the organisation.

The Polish Bund was riven with debates around the 21 points, which came to a head in 1921 at the second conference of the Polish Bund, now the only remaining Bund, in Danzig. The organisation was divided into three camps: those who were prepared to accept only 16 of the 21 points, those who could accept 19 and those who agreed with all of them. The two questions that were the most unacceptable to the large majority of the Bund were “the demand that every new group support the Comintern unanimously, and the demand that every group rid itself once and for all of those members who did not wholly agree with the Third International”.49 Although these can seem like minor disagreements, the objective of the 21 points was to create unity that crossed national borders and could bring together all the revolutionary forces that wanted to generalise the experiences of the revolution. The Bolsheviks wanted to avoid allying themselves with parties that would turn against the revolution when it deepened, as many Russian “revolutionaries” did.

The pro-Communist minority in the Bund split after the conference. First, it became the Kombund, or Communist Bund, and in 1922 it fused with the Polish Communist Party (KPP).50 This was a minority split, but in some areas carried real strength: in Lodz the Bund lost half its membership to the Kombund.51 The other two factions remained inside the Bund, but it would continue to exist highly divided for at least a decade.

The influence of the liberatory wind of the revolution had been lessened by distance and lack of direct experience. The Polish Bundists were unable to abandon Jewish particularism, and remained organised separately to communists in Poland.

From defeat to reform, and back again

The 1920s in Poland were hard for the Bund. Limited to the new Polish state, riven with divisions, and caught between revolutionary ideals and reformist organisation, the Bund was isolated.

The Bund built an ever increasing network of different cultural organisations and shifted away from direct struggle. It created sports groups, theatre companies and academies, a youth organisation and a children’s organisation, and, perhaps most importantly, increased its network of Yiddish working class education across Poland.

The second tier of its organisational focus was electoral. The Bund threw itself into the local Jewish elections and workers’ delegates elections for the Polish parliament. Its gains were modest to nonexistent throughout the 1920s.

The Bund did not officially take a reformist position in the 1920s. After rejecting membership of the Comintern, the Bund joined the Vienna International Working Union of Socialist Parties, or Second and a Half International. This was an international grouping of centrist organisations, trapped between revolutionary convictions and a lack of confidence in the working class’s ability to deliver liberation. Lenin understood that these groups could be pulled towards revolution or reform, depending on the general state of the revolutionary movement internationally. The fate of the Bund, as with many other of the centrist organisations, was to fall into the arms of the reconstituted Second International, although not without fierce internal debate.

This generalised decline took place as the revolutionary wave of the early 1920s was beaten back everywhere, including inside the Soviet Union, with the rise of Stalinism. The possibility of mass workers’ action changing the world from below seemed increasingly unlikely.

Between Stalin and Hitler: Fight!

In the 1930s the political situation in Poland and internationally changed dramatically and forced the Bund into renewed action, this time on the defensive.

In the Soviet Union, Stalin consolidated his power through forced collectivisation, the Five Year Plans and the beginning of the purges of the old guard of Bolsheviks. Those who led the revolution and carried its tradition were exiled or killed. From the other border the noises of anti-Jewish marches and pogroms in Germany intensified with the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazi Party. At home the political spectrum was pulled sharply to the right after the death of the “benevolent dictator” Pilsudski, and the possibility of Polish fascism became increasingly credible.52

The Bund remobilised. It reorganised self-defence squads—based on its Morgnstern sports groups—and called general strikes. The socialist PPS, as well as the Zionists, threw their weight behind it.

The next year the PPS and the Bund organised joint campaigns against attacks on Jewish students in universities, marched together at May Day demonstrations, formed joint self-defence groups in Warsaw, published a joint newspaper and held joint trade union conferences.53 For the second time in its history the Bund was forced out of its Jewish particularism by the events around it.

Its membership doubled and grew until the Second World War, staying the biggest Jewish organisation in Poland. It boasted 20,000 members in 1939.54 It also boosted its electoral success: it came to control “several of the largest Jewish municipal elective bodies and with decisive majorities in several city councils, including Warsaw”.55

Ironically, it is as the Bund returned to militant trade unionism and anti-fascism that its electoral results improved. It gave confidence to Jewish workers across Poland that it was possible to organise and fight, while the world seemed to crumble around their ears. This is a political message they kept alive, even in the darkest hours of Nazi occupation.

Defeat and extermination

Unfortunately, the resurgence of activity in both the Bund and the PPS was to be crushed by greater forces. In 1939, following the Hitler-Stalin Pact, both the Red Army and the Wehrmacht invaded Poland. On both sides of occupied Poland, the leaderships of most political organisations were arrested, and so too that of the Bund. On the Russian side, Victor Alter and Henryk Ehrlich were arrested, first for being “British agents, then released and re-arrested for being German agents. Ehrlich was executed in 1942. Alter committed suicide”.56

On the German side, the crimes are better known: the Jews were rounded up in ghettos, where they were starved before being massacred in concentration camps. A less well known history is that of the resistance in the ghettos. The Bund organised an underground press, education system and theatre groups in most ghettos across Poland. It collaborated with the PPS and the Polish Underground in terrorist attacks on the occupying forces. Finally, and perhaps most impressively, it organised, with others, uprisings in several ghettos, of which the Warsaw one is the best known.

After around 300,000 Jews had been deported to the death camps, the remaining members of Zionist groups, Communists and Bundists came together and launched the Jewish Fighting Organisation. Together, and with the few arms they could get from an under-armed and doubtful Polish resistance movement, they launched an uprising in 1943 as the Germans attempted to clear out the ghetto completely. They resisted for a month, against a well fed, trained and heavily armed army. The uprising was finally crushed through the complete destruction of the ghetto.57

The ghetto uprising was a last glimmer of hope, a flame of resistance, in the long night of the extermination of nearly the entirety of the Jewish population of the Pale and with it that of the Bund, and those Jewish workers who fought to change the world.

After the war the Bund and all other revolutionary organisations were forced into the ruling Stalinist Polish United Workers’ Party.58 Only a few thousand Bundists survived, many emigrated, and others disappeared. In 1948 in Brussels the Bund called a world Bundist Conference, thereby abandoning the rejection of a united world Jewry, and the necessity to organise where one was, in the particular circumstances one was facing. In the end it even recognised the state of Israel and the Bundist branch in the Zionist state. The Bund suffered the same demoralisation as did a majority of Jews. Its militants looked for peace and refuge, even at the price of dispossession of another people’s land.


The history of the Bund is important, first as a corrective to the rewriting of Jewish history by Zionist historians. The history of the Jews in Europe is not one of victims or casualties of history. On the contrary, it is the history of a population in struggle, organising and fighting for a different and better world, one without exploitation and oppression. The Bund played an important role in that struggle and took part in the greatest moments of liberation and revolution, as well as the darkest hours of oppression and extermination.

The history of the Bund also shows what many exclusivist revolutionary movements have shown since: the self-organisation of an oppressed working class is in itself a step forward, but a limited one on the road to complete liberation. Indeed, the creation of the Bund created a space where Jewish workers could organise and resist against both the exploitation and racism they faced. It was also a step forward for the revolutionary movement as a whole. The Bund created many of the pillars of revolutionary organisation, from agitational newspapers to full-time revolutionaries. The Bund organised trade unions and fought for better wages and conditions.

At the same time, it found itself limited geographically and structurally by its exclusive base. It is important to understand that its exclusivity, or particularism, was rooted in the oppression faced by the Bund. It was at first not a conscious decision, but a fact of life under an oppressive system, which drove the Bund to become a Jewish workers’ organisation: the workers it was in contact with were almost
exclusively Jewish.

Nonetheless, it became clear at the highest moments of
struggle—in victory and in defeat—that without the alliance and the unity of all workers, victory against oppression and exploitation is impossible. Ultimately, oppression is inextricably linked to exploitation, and it is only through the overthrow of the system as a whole, by all workers, that all forms of oppression can be overcome. Despite the fact that the Bund understood this theoretically, in practice it never accepted the full conclusions. The answer to ending anti-Semitism could never be separate organisations fighting for a federal nationality structure. It could only be unity in action, unity in organisation, unity in objectives, by one class against another.

The Bund’s membership came to that conclusion at the height of the revolutionary wave in Russia. Not only was the promise of socialism and a different world opening in front of their eyes a fantastic universalising pull, but the Bolsheviks proved in practice that they were the group that would fight the hardest for workers’ power and against anti-Semitism. It was therefore not only the objective situation that created the conditions for the Bundists to join the Bolsheviks, but also the conscious effort of the Bolsheviks to defeat anti-Semitism, that won the Jewish revolutionaries over.

In the defeat of the revolutionary movement from the 1920s onwards the Bund was defeated too. Its defeat was accelerated by its original inability to relate to the revolutionary wave, and its turn to community organising and electioneering. It was disarmed by Stalinism and murdered in the Nazi extermination.

In a sense the history of the Bund is the history of the workers’ movement in Eastern Europe, and represents many of its aspects, in both victory and defeat.

Today it reminds us of those who fought for a different world. It reminds us that Eastern European Jews escaped to Zionism amid demoralisation and defeat. It reminds us of the dignified heroism of the condemned at the darkest hour of the century, and crucially it still teaches us lessons in the fight against oppression and exploitation a century later.


1: The Eastern European Jewish language.

2: Rose, 2004, p98.

3: Minszeles, 2010.

4: Minszeles, 2010, p28.

5: Minszeles, 2010, pp30-32.

6: Minszeles, 2010, p43.

7: Pinson, 1945, p236.

8: Minszeles, 2010, p58.

9: Minszeles, 2010, pp64-66; Brossat and Klingberg, 2009, pp49-57.

10: Minszeles, 2010, p43.

11: Minszeles, 2010, p147.

12: Medem, in Minszeles, 2010, p152.

13: Brumberg, 1999, p197.

14: Cohen, 2001, p120.

15: Bund, in Pinson, 1945, p238.

16: Mendelsohn, 1968, p245.

17: Zimmerman, in Jacobs, 2001, p30.

18: Zimmerman, in Jacobs, 2001, p34.

19: Kuhn, in Jacobs, 2001, p148.

20: Brossat and Klingberg, 2009, pp42-43.

21: Rose, 2004, p110.

22: Tobias, in Jacobs, 2001, p356.

23: Lenin, 1903.

24: Lih 2008, pp489-553.

25: Lih, 2011, p81.

26: The Bund rejoined the RSDLP in 1906 at the fourth unity conference.

27: Wrobel, in Jacobs, 2001, p158.

28: Samus, in Jacobs, 2001, pp98-100.

29: Kuhn, in Jacobs, 2001, p143.

30: Samus, in Jacobs, 2001, p101.

31: Pinson, 1945, p254.

32: Lenin, in Cliff, 1986, p248.

33: Wrobel, in Jacobs, 2001, pp158-160.

34: Wrobel, in Jacobs, 2001, p159.

35: Cohen, in Jacobs, 2001, p118.

36: Cohen, in Jacobs, 2001, p114.

37: Brossat and Klingberg, 2009, p181.

38: Brossat and Klingberg, 2009, p180.

39: Brossat and Klingberg, 2009, p182.

40: Brossat and Klingberg, 2009, p183.

41: Brossat and Klingberg, 2009, pp175-191.

42: Brossat and Klingberg, 2009, p190.

43: Brossat and Klingberg, 2009, p189.

44: Wrobel, in Jacobs, 2001, p160.

45: Brumberg, in Jacobs, 2001, p81.

46: Brossat and Klingberg, 2009, pp36, 176-177.

47: Brumberg, in Jacobs, 2001, p81.

48: Kessler, in Jacobs, 2001, p187.

49: Brumberg, in Jacobs, 2001, p81.

50: Wrobel, in Jacobs, 2001, p160.

51: Samus, in Jacobs, 2001, p104.

52: Wrobel, in Jacobs, 2001, p135.

53: Wrobel, in Jacobs, 2001, p207.

54: Wrobel, in Jacobs, 2001, p166.

55: Brumberg, 1999, p206.

56: Wrobel, in Jacobs, 2001, p207.

57: Edelman, 1994.

58: Wrobel, in Jacobs, 2001, p167.


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Brumberg, Abraham, 2001, “The Bund: History of a Schism”, in Jacobs, 2001.

Cliff, Tony, 1986 [1975], Lenin: Building the Party 18931914 (Bookmarks).

Cohen, Nathan, 2001, “The Bund’s Contribution to Yiddish Culture in Poland Between the Two World Wars”, in Jacobs, 2001.

Jacobs, Jack (ed), 2001, Jewish Politics in Eastern Europe: The Bund at 100 (Palgrave).

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Lenin, VI, 1903, “Letter to the Organising Committees”,

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Rose, John, 2004, The Myths of Zionism (Bookmarks).

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Wrobel, Piotr, 2001, “From Conflict to Cooperation: the Bund and the Polish Socialist Party, 1897-1939”, in Jacobs, 2001.

Zimmerman, Joshua, 2001, “The influence of the “Polish Question” on the Bund’s National Programme, 1897-1905”, in Jacobs, 2001.