Jewish Self-Organisation

Left assimilationism takes an organisational form in the frequent attacks on the notion of independent Jewish self-organisation Whereas Kautsky's main reason for writing about Jews was to attack zionism, Lenin was mainly concerned with attacking the autonomous existence of the Bund—the revolutionary union of Jewish workers in Russia and Poland. Both used almost identical arguments. In fact, it is extraordinary that while Kautsky's criticism of zionism was in part based on a perception of the need for Jews to fight oppression, in whatever country they were living, when Jews did organise through the Bund to fight such oppression they were denounced as separatists. The Bund was an anti-zionist organisation, but their advocacy of autonomous Jewish socialist organisation led Lenin to denounce them for zionism (see The Position of the Bund in the Party).

Lenin launched a vast polemic against the Bund, superficially on the question of whether there was a 'Jewish culture' or a Jewish 'nation'—both of which he denied. Some of his positions were quite obscurantist: he went to exceptional lengths to 'prove' the Jews were not a 'nation'. In the Position of the Bund he quoted Kautsky's statement with approval: "The Jews have ceased to be a nation, for a nation without a territory is unthinkable", This is sheer scholasticism. The ultimate logic of such an argument is that all diaspora Jews suddenly became a nation when Israel was established. In fact the whole debate is a complete abstraction. The political questions—for or against zionism of for or against self-organisation—cannot be 'solved' through a semantic debate about whether Jews have achieved the status of something which, like 'race' is completely metaphysical—namely 'nationhood'. To the extent that Bundists as well as Leninists—and as well as zionists—dealt in these abstractions they were all dealing in myths.

Nevertheless, behind all this obscurantism, Lenin was attacking the very idea of the autonomy of Jewish political organisation. Some of his writings are very similar to criticisms made by sections of the Left today of independent black and women's organisations. This is perhaps most evident in his article Does the Jewish Proletariat Need an Independent Political Party? He attacked separatism on the grounds that:

"we must not weaken the force of our offensive by breaking up into numerous political parties, we must not introduce estrangement and isolation".

This is precisely what is argued today against autonomous organisations, that they somehow weaken class struggle by initiating divisions. There is a reluctance to acknowledge that class struggle is already fragmented through, for example, sexism, racism—and anti-semitism. Independent organisations of the oppressed are a way of combatting this. In fact, Lenin specifically objected to the Bund for daring to suggest that anti-semitism was not only found amongst the bourgeoisie, but "had struck roots in the mass of the workers." Finally, Lenin attacked the Bund for apparently referring to the Bolsheviks as a "Christian working-class organisation"—just as some modern Left groups object to being designated the 'white Left' or the 'male Left'. What determines the categorisation of a political organisation is not simple its aspirations, or its sociological membership, but also its attitude towards present oppression—and in this sense it was understandable that the Bolsheviks should have been considered 'Christian' by many Jewish revolutionaries.

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© 1984 Steve Cohen, edited and produced by Libby Lawson and Erica Bunnan.
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