K. Boris October 26 1907

The Jewish Proletariat in Russia – Ten Years of the Bund

“The Jewish Proletariat in Russia – Ten Years of the Bund,” Justice, p.5. October 26 and November 2, 1907;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The Jewish proletariat in Russia is celebrating the tenth anniversary of its organisation – The Bund.

On September 25, 1897, there came together eleven delegates from various Jewish Social-Democratic groups in several of the larger towns comprised in the Jewish “pale” in Russia. Their meeting took place in a garret of a small dilapidated house near the local prison of Lukishki, a suburb of Wilno. And there the eleven (consisting of four workmen, two factory girls, and five intellectuals) laid the foundation of the powerful organisation which was destined to play so large and so important a part in the Russian Revolution in general, and the regeneration of the Jewish proletariat in particular. After a Conference, lasting over three days, they decided to form the General Jewish Labour Union, afterwards called, in short, the Bund. One of the eleven thus describes the meeting in “Die Hoffnung,” the Jewish Socialist organ published in Wilno “.... We took our seats round an uncovered table where there was hardly room enough for all. We spoke very quietly, avoiding all noise so as not to be overheard in the courtyard. It was a clouded autumn day. A slight rain was falling. There was some feeling of nervous tension, as only a week ago the police had been making a number of house searches. These were the first the police had been carrying out on so large a scale, and the meeting was therefore organised with the utmost care. The speeches were simple, short and to the point. They contained nothing new to those present. The resolutions surprised, no one. For everything was so clear and seemed to be well-known long ago! The resolutions were adopted as something self-evident, and with little discussion. We met three times. We used to come together in the morning and separate in the evening. At last, when we finally parted on the conclusion of our conference a feeling overtook us that something had happened which was unknown before, that this conference had created something big and important, and our hearts were full of pride and joy.”


The eleven were right. One but needs to contrast the condition of the Jewish workers before the formation of the Bund and that obtaining now, to see what a tremendous change has taken place. A change both material and more, economic and intellectual. To take the economic conditions first: Ten years ago the Jewish worker was exploited and sweated to his utmost capacity. The average working hours were 14 per day, often 16 and 18. To work during half- holidays, to work on the evening of Sabbath, to work all night and for some nights together was quite an ordinary thing. And now the average working day is no more than nine or ten hours long – in some industries even eight. A twelve hours day is a rare exception. Night-work and work during the holidays is almost unknown. And while the day was shortened: wages have risen considerably. In some industries they have almost doubled.

Again ten years ago the employer looked upon his workman as a dog and treated him as a slave. He addressed him in the singular person (a sign of disrespect in most languages when applied to a stranger) insulted and often beat him. He could dismiss him at a moment’s notice and without a copeck of compensation. All this has changed since the formation of the Bund.

The Jewish workers organised, and became imbued with a feeling of self-respect and a sense of their human worth; meekness and fear, which had filled their hearts, vanished for ever. The Jewish Socialist press contains almost daily an advertisement by an employer craving the pardon of an organisation or a workman he has in some manner mistreated, and (literally) “promises not to do it again"! To effect all this was no light task. It had to be done; the trade unions had to be built up in the teeth of a vindictive and cruel police persecution, in the teeth of the Rabbis of the synagogues, in the teeth of the Mrs. Grundy of the Jewish community, and last, but not least, centuries of apathy and ignorance of the workers themselves had to be overcome. And the Bund did it. The fight was long, and the employers offered a stubborn resistance. But it availed them nought. A storm of strikes and boycotts swept over the whole of the industrial area of the Jewish towns and even villages. The sacrifices were enormous. Thousands were cast into prison; hundreds deported to Siberia. Torture and violent death claimed many a victim. But the battle never flagged. And the workers won.


The material improvement in the condition of the Jewish worker could not but affect him morally and intellectually. For it was not by the wand of the magician that the Bund was able to shorten his hours and increase his wages. It was by teaching him to fight for it, to organise for it, by awakening in him the dormant sense of manhood, by making him class-conscious. The whole psychology of the Jewish workers was revolutionised. He shook the chains which had enthralled him for so long, and the erstwhile downtrodden and miserable wretch, doubly despised as an exploited slave and an oppressed Jew, has straightened his back and become a man, who, indeed, is now hated more than formerly by his master, but who can no longer be treated with contempt. Too long he had suffered in silence, too long he had licked the hand of his oppressor, too long he had gone on his knees, to beg for mercy. All this gave way to a spirit of stubborn resistance, protest and battle. In 1881 when the Jewish massacres came, the Jews were slaughtered like sheep, their homes destroyed, their women outraged. The Jews could and did do nothing to defend themselves and theirs; they ran away and hid in cellars. The Bund taught them another way: Not to run but to fight, not to hide but to resist by force of the strong arm, and in the last resource to save their honour by selling their lives dearly! The latter-day pogroms, the last weapon of the counter-revolution, bear witness to the heroic resistance of the Jewish workers. The value of their resistance lies not so much in its practical results – it is difficult to defend yourself with a revolver when opposed to you is not only a band of well-armed hooligans but also a regiment of soldiers with bayonets and guns – it lies in the fact that the Jewish worker began to respect himself and compelled his neighbours to respect him. It taught also the Government no more to despise but often to fear him.

But the Jewish worker has not only become more brave but intellectually and politically more developed. The Bond from its commencement understood the importance of not limiting its activity to mere trade unionism. It taught the Jewish worker the lesson that the political and economic struggle are two sides of the same movement and may go hand in hand. It taught him to fight not only for shorter hours and better pay, but also for the realisation of complete liberty and complete equality, and it held high before him the Socialist ideal. The moral and intellectual development of the Jewish worker kept pace with his material progress. The Bund has aided considerably in the development of the Jewish language and taught the Jewish masses to read serious political works. The whole of the Jewish Socialist literature in Russia is the work of the Bund. During the ten years of its existence it published more than a hundred books and pamphlets, a large number of newspapers, journals, and hundreds of thousands of leaflets.


The Bund is the organisation of the Jewish proletariat. But it justly lays claim to have raised the status of the whole the Jewish nation. Ten years ago the political influence of the Jews in Russia was nil. The Jewish masses were bowed down by eternal toil and starvation, without joy in the present, without hope for the future. The Jewish bourgeoisie was at the mercy of every petty official, and its only defence the power of its purse. The Jewish intellectual youth sought refuge in non-Jewish movements, and did all they could to leave their unhappy brethren. But when the proletariat awakened, when the Bund came, this apathy and this cowardice gave place to hope and to courage. The Bund showed the way. It destroyed the illusion of the unity of the Jewish race. It demonstrated the existence of two antagonistic classes in the Jewish as in all other nationalities. It organised the workers into a separate political party, and this could not but bring in its train the opposite – the organisation of the Jewish bourgeoisie politically. The Jewish intellectual youth also thus found a field for activity within the ranks of their own nationality. The Bund taught them the lesson that here it was they were wanted – here and now. And thus the Jews were awakened from their long political slumber. All classes of Jews began to organise. Parties sprang up, and if they were not all very enduring, still, they contributed to the commotion, to the political, moral, and intellectual awakening of the Jews: the awakening of their manhood, their determination to be treated on equal terms with their neighbours. All classes looked on with wonder at the wonderful Bund, and strove to imitate it. And when the autocracy was at last forced by the proletariat of the whole of Russia to grant a constitution (if only the semblance of one), the Government was compelled to grant the suffrage also to the Jews, because, as Buligin, the Minister of the Interior of that time, expressed himself, “a spirit of unrest was lately rampant in that nation.”

When it is remembered that the Jews suffer in Russia under exclusive laws which ban them from many a profession and occupation, which limit their admission into schools and universities, which prohibit their ownership of land, and, what is more terrible still, which confine them to a few districts known as “the pale,” and prohibit them from settling in all the rest of Russia; when, in a word, it is remembered that the Jew is looked upon in the eyes of the Russian law as an inferior being, then the fact that the Russian Government was compelled to grant to the Jew on equal terms the greatest privilege of the citizen, the vote – this fact is a splendid monument to the work of the Bund in the regeneration of the Jewish proletariat, and through the proletariat that of the whole nation.

And if everyone now recognises that the conclusion of the Russian Revolution, the establishment of a truly constitutional era, is impossible without the complete emancipation of the Jews, without their being placed on a complete footing of equality with the other races in Russia, if no other conclusion is now imaginable, then this is due to the great work of the Bund during the ten years of its existence. This is one of its great contributions to the Russian revolution.


No account, of the work of the Bund would be complete without mentioning its influence upon the Social-Democratic Labour movement of Russia as a whole. The Bund from the outset adopted international Social-Democracy as the basis of its programme. From the outset it was also a truly proletarian organisation, not only because it adopted the class war as its basis, but also because it was part and parcel of the Labour movement which was in its infancy at the time of its formation. And it was its proletarian nature which enabled the Bund to render great service to the Russian revolution in general and the Russian Social-Democracy in particular. Some fifteen years ago, the Russian Social-Democracy consisted almost exclusively of intellectuals, and they confined their activities almost exclusively to the work of education and propaganda in small circles of workmen and students. Of a large agitation within the ranks of the masses on the basis of their own economic needs, almost nothing was known. The Social-Democracy propagated Socialism among individual workmen, even distributed literature among the masses, but did nothing to lead the masses themselves to battle, to turn the spontaneous economic outbreaks into a definite political plan of campaign, in a word to make it the living interest of the masses themselves to carry on the struggle against capitalism and autocracy. It was the Bund or, to be more exact, the founders and forerunners of the Bund, which had grown with and out of the Jewish proletariat, who pointed out the new way, who called for a new policy. We cannot do better than quote from the pamphlet “about agitation,” written by one of the founders of the Bund some three or four years before its formation, and which has revolutionised the tactics of the Russian Social-Democracy.

After explaining the evolution of capitalism the author says: “The aim of the proletariat is the conquest of political power. But the worker will never understand this .... until he comes face to face with the existing political conditions, when these will oppose at every step the Labour movement and hinder his struggle for his material improvement, then, and not till then, will the economic class struggle evolve into a conscious political struggle.... and consequently it is impossible to expect a working-class movement, with apolitical programme, unless there was previously an economic struggle on a large scale. It is Utopian to expect the masses to conduct a political struggle until they become convinced that this struggle is imperative for their material interests .... Nothing but the stern experience of life forces the masses into a struggle. Mere talk is of no avail .... and thus the problem before Social-Democracy is to conduct a constant agitation for (at first) small needs and demands. The struggle this agitation will call forth will teach the workers to defend their interests and make them confident of their own powers .... will tend to unite them .... and make them class-conscious .... and finally, will lead to a struggle for a change in the political conditions.”

The author, however, insists that side by side with this mass agitation, the work of education and propaganda must go on. The very needs of this agitation require it. For while the agitator must “constantly be with the masses, study their life and watch for their needs,” he must also always be in a position to explain to the masses “the inner meaning of their struggle, constantly demonstrate to them the existence of the class antagonism, and as far as possible widen their horizon .... theory must go hand in hand with practice,” – the light of the Socialist torch must illuminate the work of agitation. The Bund, thoroughly carried out the doctrines of this pamphlet into practice, with what splendid results we have seen. And the policy of the Bund had a powerful influence on that of the rest of the Russian Social-Democracy. To be just, it was Plechanoff who was the founder of Social-Democracy in Russia, and he it was who propounded first of all the doctrine that the Russian revolution cannot succeed until the Russian proletariat takes the lead, and, consequently, it was incumbent upon the Russian Social-Democrats to devote most of their energy to the work among the proletarians. For a long time the ideas of Plechanoff took shape by the work of propaganda in small circles of working men. Then came the founders of the Bund, and developed these ideas in all their grandeur. They not only pointed the way, but took the first plunge. They developed a great proletarian movement among the Jewish workers, and their influence was felt by the rest of the Social-Democracy, who followed the example of the Bund, and, taking advantage of the increasing spontaneous outbreaks of strikes among the Russian workers, threw themselves, heart and soul into the Labour movement, and gave it a class-conscious political aim. The Russian proletariat put itself at the head of the Russian Revolution, and Social-Democracy led the proletariat.

* * *

Such, then, are the achievements of the Bund. I fear I have been able to give but an imperfect outline of the general results of its labour. Space will not permit to tell the story of its inner growth as an organisation, which now counts no less than 30,000 paying members. But mere numbers count for little. Its greatness consists in this: Whilst it has never for one moment hidden, its Social-Democratic principles in name or ideas, it always remained within and of the class-conscious Jewish proletariat. The Jewish organised proletariat and the Bund are interchangeable terms. Such it has been in the days of the dark reaction, such it has remained in the days of comparative freedom. Whether it worked underground in the former days or openly unfurled its banner in the street during the Duma elections it remained true to its proletarian instincts; to its Socialist faith, to its Social-Democratic tactics. One more quotation from “Die Hoffnung” in conclusion: “During the last ten year the road was built .... and for this reason they will be entered in the Jewish history as the most important of a new period, the beginning of an epoch .... The road is built and the Jewish proletariat will march forward .... under the red flag of the Bund to the last battle and complete victory.

K. Boris