Borochovism

10 February 1972

in A Critique of Zionist Ideology, Articles, The Other Israel

This chapter is based on an article written by Moshé Machover.

 

In the past few years, the Zionist propaganda machine has made a strenuous effort to resuscitate the unique doctrine of “proletarian Zionism,” first formulated by the Russian Jew Ber Borochov (1881-1917). A small army of functionaries is kept busy preparing new editions of this master’s works in several European languages, supplying them with learned exegeses and in general delivering the rehashed gospel of Borochov to young Jews of Europe and the Americas.

At first sight, all this seems rather odd, because Borochovism disappeared as a living political force in the Zionist movement years ago. In Israel, the Borochovist Party, Po’aley Zion Smol (Workers of Zion, left) departed from the scene in 1948 when it combined with the larger, non-Borochovist groups, Hashomer Hatzair and Achdut Ha’avoda, to form the united, left Zionist party Mapam. For the Borochovists, this meant not only organizational demise but also total theoretical capitulation, since the program of the newly formed Mapam in no way represented a compromise between Borochovism and the other left Zionist tendencies; it was simply non-Borochovist.

Thus, the “revival” of Borochovism poses a triple question. Has any new historical reality emerged recently that Borochovist theory is uniquely able to illuminate and that thus lends it a renewed relevance? Secondly, who is the new audience for this Borochovist revival? Finally, why are Zionist emissaries so eager to sell this doctrine?

To answer these questions, we will outline Borochov’s theory and confront it with the historical reality. According to Ber Borochov, the Jews of the world constitute a single nation, and he defines a nation as “a social group that has developed on the basis of common conditions of production and … which is, moreover, united by a consciousness of affinity based on a common historical past.” 1 Further, he states that “the most general condition of production … is the national territory,” and hence the national territory is “the positive foundation” on which a nation is able to develop a national life of its own. 2 But the Jews lack this “positive foundation” because they are extraterritorial and constitute an anomalous nation. Their national existence, therefore, is determined by this purely negative factor, the absence of a national territory. Living in a foreign environment, they tend to adapt themselves to the surrounding society and assume its characteristics.

But, according to Borochov, a tendency contrary to assimilation is also produced by the absence of a national territory. Namely, because the Jews are an extraterritorial nation, they are always defeated in economic competition with their host nations. As a consequence of these defeats, the Jews are first pushed into economic sectors that have not yet been occupied by the host nation; generally speaking these are not the primary sectors of the economy (agriculture and production of capital goods) but the secondary sectors (the final stages of production and commerce). This incomplete isolation of the Jews from the host nation later gives way to total isolation, as the host nation enters into competition with them even in these secondary sectors and evicts the Jews from them. 3

Up to this point, Borochov’s analysis is not very different from that of other “socialist” Zionists and even of bourgeois Zionists like Herzl. While Borochov’s general concept of “nation” is incomplete and, in particular, his claim that the Jews of the world constitute a nation is false, his theory rests on a plausible if somewhat distorted picture of the position of his contemporaries – that is, the Jews of the Russian Empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But even the most fleeting confrontation of Borochov’s analysis with the actual position of Jews today – especially in Europe and the Americas, where Borochovist ideology is being disseminated most vigorously – shows that it has completely lost that plausibility.

While it is true that the Jews do tend to be concentrated in certain sectors of the economy (although not nearly to the same extent as they were in Russia at the turn of the century), they are not on the whole isolated or separated from the host nations by economic competition. Of course, capitalist competition does exist, but it does not usually assume the form of national competition between Jews and the host nations. The Jews in Tsarist Russia were confined by law to a ghetto, the Pale. A rigid quota system governed university admissions; Jews were barred by law from a number of professions and occupations. As they lost their traditional economic roles, the Jewish masses were to some degree being progressively isolated from the larger society, pushed out of it, and forced to emigrate. Today, no such process is discernible in, say, the United States, where the world’s largest Jewish community lives. There, the forces of integration are much stronger than the forces of isolation.

Of course, it is possible that this process of integration will one day be reversed. The fate of European Jewry under Nazism clearly demonstrates that an advanced capitalist society which had long assimilated the Jews can under conditions of general crisis “expel” them in the most murderous way possible. But the causes of the reversal of the process of Jewish integration in Germany – and the causes of any possible reversal of this process wherever Jewish communities Eve today – are utterly different from those operating in pre-revolutionary Russia. There, the Jews traditionally fulfilled certain economic functions (in some crafts and commerce) required by Russian society but which the dominant Russian feudalism was incapable of fulfilling. As usually happens in such cases, relative strangers were able to find a “natural” place in that society; the Jewish community was maintained from one generation to the next in Russian society, but not as a part of it Then, with the development of capitalism the traditional occupations of the Jews either became superfluous or were taken over by non-Jews. Moreover, in Russia – as Borochov himself states – the upper Jewish bourgeoisie adapted rather well to the new conditions. The real victims were the large majority of middlemen and small craftsmen.

But none of this has any connection with the realities of any large Jewish community in the world today. The majority of Jews live in advanced capitalist countries where only the slightest remnants of pre-capitalist relations are evident. Those Jewish communities still living in colonial and semi-colonial countries, where quasi-feudal social forms are still significant, possess a social structure that in no way resembles that of late nineteenth-century Russian Jewry. And whatever becomes of the Soviet Jewish community, it will certainly not be as a consequence of the development of capitalism in a disintegrating feudal society!

One of the crucial differences between Borochovism and other brands of “socialist” Zionism is Borochov’s claim to deduce Zionism not from the dynamics and interests of the Jewish people in general, but from the interests of the Jewish proletariat. It was not sufficient for Borochov to show that the spontaneous dynamics and real interest of the largest Jewish class of his time, the lower middle class, led to Zionism.

If it were the case that the interests of the Jewish bourgeoisie and of the masses standing on the verge of proletarianization led them to territorialism, while the interests of the Jewish proletariat were not connected with territorialism, then there would be no grounds for saying that the future of the entire Jewish people is also the future of the Jewish proletariat. One should not take as the starting point the general, national future and deduce the future of the proletariat from it. On the contrary, one should start with the interests of the proletariat, and from this arrive at the future of the nation as a whole … From the starting point of the interests of the militant Jewish proletariat and from our view of it as thevanguard of the Jewish future, we deduce territorialism for the Jewish people as a whole. 4

It must be stressed that when Borochov claimed that his Zionism expressed the objective movement and interests of the Jewish working class, he was not speaking about a potential or future class, but about one which actually existed. 5 The only Zionist group to hold this view with any degree of consistency was Po’aley Zion Smol. All the other factions reject this central Borochovist idea. They present Zionism as a Jewish national movement without any particular reference to class or justify Zionism as necessary for creating a Jewish proletariat – a justification which Borochov did not accept This is one of the reasons why all these groups cannot be regarded as Borochovist, and the claims to the contrary which are made from time to time are based on theoretical confusion or intellectual dishonesty, or both.

Borochov begins his analysis of the specific conditions and interests of the Jewish working class by pointing out that “national competition’’ tends to isolate the Jewish worker and restrict his field of potential employment “Because of national competition among the masses that are becoming proletarianized and are seeking employment, Jewish labor is employed only by middle Jewish capital; the anti-Semitism of the non-Jewish employers and workers does not allow Jewish labor to penetrate into workshops owned by non-Jews.” 6

The effect of all this is not merely a quantitative restriction of employment “Since almost the whole of Jewish capital is invested in the production of consumer goods … Jewish proletarianization is on a lower level than required. Hie exclusion of Jewish workers from heavy industry and machines is so widespread and conspicuous that the Christian workers have adopted the view that operating a machine is their own special prerogative and privilege, and they systematically forbid Jews to operate them even when the machine replaces handicraft in a branch of production where Jews are employed.” 7 Thus Jewish employment was numerically restricted, confined to branches where Jewish capital was invested – i.e., non-basic branches of industry. Even within these branches it was confined to non-basic jobs. This isolation had an organizational consequence: “In the course of the development of capitalist economy, the Jewish proletariat has spontaneously organized itself in special national organizations that unite the Jewish workers separately from the workers of other nations. The special organization of the working class is a consequence of the fact that its national existence is economically special, that it is isolated.” And Borochov concludes that “because the economic isolation of Jewish life is increasing, there is also an increasing need for a special political organization.”8

On the other hand, because of the types of jobs to which Jewish labor was confined, the Jewish proletariat did not have a proper “strategic base” in its economic and political struggle against capital:

Since the Jewish proletariat is almost entirely employed in producing consumer goods, and is not active in any primary stage of the economic process, it does not hold any life lines to the economy in the country where it lives; hence its influence on the general trend of life is necessarily quite restricted. It cannot paralyze the whole economic machine at once, as can the railway workers and others whose conditions are more favorable … Even in its most just demands it is powerless to defend itself when not supported by other, more fortunate workers.9

From this, Borochov deduces that a territorial solution to the Jewish problem is in the interests of the Jewish proletariat:

All these national anomalies will disappear only after the fundamental conditions of Jewish life have changed, after the Jewish people are no longer extraterritorial. When the Jews are employed in the primary branches of production and produce not only consumer goods but also means of production … then will the class struggle of the Jewish proletariat be directed not against an impotent bourgeoisie in the Jewish economy, as it is today, but against a strong bourgeoisie which organizes production in a single country. Then the class struggle of the Jewish worker will achieve the necessary political, economic and social impact. 10

At this point we should note Borochov’s misconception inherent in the theories discussed above. The idea that the pre-revolutionary Russian Jewish proletariat needed an independent strategic base for its own class struggle was formulated by Borochov in a narrow, nationalistic context, and can lead to harmful conclusions. The proletarian struggle begins as a confrontation between worker and employer, “his own” capitalist, so to speak. At first it is conducted in relative isolation within a given industry and national or ethnic group. But the struggle assumes its true social and political significance only by overcoming these backward and narrow limitations. The task of a revolutionary working-class movement is therefore not to take the isolated struggles separately and look for another strategic base for each new struggle, but to coordinate and unite them all on the basis of the whole country, and later on the international arena.

The struggle of the Jewish workers began in the ghetto, the Russian Pale. There, it is safe to say, their strategic position was quite weak as long as the community remained isolated. Borochov assumed that isolation was necessary for the struggle to remain a confrontation between Jewish worker and employer. But in fact what the Jewish workers needed was not a separate strategic base but grounds for a common struggle involving all the workers in the community, a movement being established by the true internationalist revolutionaries.

Borochov wrote that Jewish socialists and revolutionaries could not play a significant role in the socialist revolution of the peoples among whom they lived in the Diaspora. But only six years after that, Russia was swept by her great revolution in which Jews played an important role precisely because they were not looking for a Jewish national socialism as an isolated Jewish strategic base. 11

Borochov’s “proletarian Zionism” came to harmful theoretical conclusions, but many of his factual assumptions were not imaginary; they were based on existing reality. The Jews’ isolated condition, loss of traditional economic roles, their proletarianization and exclusion from non-Jewish enterprises were all part of the reality of the day. And in then-initial confrontations with the bourgeoisie in their community, they necessarily dealt only with the Jewish bourgeoisie. Thus “the Jewish proletariat” were not just empty words – they denoted a definite, distinct socio-economic group with its own class interests.

This was the situation about sixty years ago; but what possible application can proletarian Zionism have in relation to the Jewish communities that now exist in Europe and the Americas? Today there is no Jewish proletariat in the Diaspora, which is not to say that there are no Jewish workers – there are. But no Jewish proletariat exists as a coherent social group, as it did in a segregated ghetto in pre-revolutionary Russia, A Jewish worker in Britain is a member of the working class in general, not of any “Jewish” class. To speak of the class interests and needs of the Jewish working class today, and therefore proletarian Zionism in general, is not merely incorrect, it is meaningless. This is perhaps the main reason why Borochovism has been losing its influence within the Zionist movement: The social groups on which it bases itself and which it claims to represent have ceased to exist.

Borochov died at the end of 1917, just before Zionism began to colonize Palestine on a large scale. But during the actual process of colonization, many of his arguments and forecasts were demonstrated to be false, thereby weakening the position of his followers. There are a number of examples of this.

First, Borochov claimed 12 that the petit bourgeois Jewish masses who immigrated to the advanced capitalist countries would soon become impoverished and proletarianized. A new Jewish proletariat would emerge in those countries and would be subject to the same process of national competition and isolation as in Russia. The Jewish masses would therefore gravitate to proletarian Zionism and migrate to Palestine. This of course never happened. The Jewish immigrants in the advanced countries were not proletarianized and managed to improve their economic and social positions rather rapidly.

Second, Borochov insisted 13 that there was no need to propagandize among the Jewish workers to encourage them to go to Palestine. He repeated that Jewish capital would gravitate toward Palestine spontaneously and the Jewish workers would naturally follow it. Jewish capital did in fact find its way into Palestine (although not quite as spontaneously as Borochov supposed), but the Jewish workers did not follow it Among those who went to Palestine were very few workers indeed; there was such a shortage of them that many people were forced to become workers there.

Third, one of Palestine’s main virtues as Borochov saw it was that it was under Turkish rule. He strongly rejected the idea of Jewish colonization in any country ruled by an advanced capitalist power. In particular, he bitterly opposed colonization under a charter granted by such a power. 14 In practice, widespread Zionist colonization only started when Palestine came under British rule. And the only way in which this colonization could ever be realized was precisely the way it was: under British sponsorship, granted by charter. (The Balfour Declaration was issued a few days before Borochov died.)

Finally, in Borochov’s view 15 the Palestinian Arabs (he refers to them as “natives of Palestine”) lacked any culture of their own and did not have any outstanding national characteristics. “They easily and quickly adopt any imported cultural character higher than their own; they cannot unite in organized resistance against external influences, they are not capable of national competition.” He therefore deduced that “the natives of Palestine will assimilate economically and culturally with whoever brings order into the country and undertakes the development of the forces of production of Palestine.” 16 As for the Arab national movement, Borochov was confident that “it does not and cannot have any relation to Palestine.” 17

It is not difficult to see why this philosophy and mentality are now being resurrected by the Zionist propaganda machine, and what the reasons are for their sudden demand. This is partly so because a rough similarity exists between the present political and intellectual atmosphere in the West and that in East Europe during the birth of Borochovism. Socially and economically, the position of the Jews now and then could not be further apart; the analogy is confined mainly to the political and intellectual spheres. In both cases a major upsurge of revolutionary socialist consciousness occurred among the young. This state of turbulence, typically preceding revolutions, usually spreads first among students and the young intelligentsia, incurring a new political awareness in them and replacing the old apathy and cynicism. No alert and self-respecting young intellectual can remain indifferent to the groups that are formed, the heated debates that occur, the direct action that is often taken; he is drawn in and must take a stand. In addition, Jews have traditionally played a prominent role in social and revolutionary movements.

Now, as in the past, young Jews find that they must make a choice between joining the revolutionary struggle where they live, or opting out of it in order to take part in the Zionist colonization of Palestine. In effect, these are two roads leading in opposite directions: socialism and Zionism. Or, theoretically, the choice lies between Marxism and a peculiar kind of nationalism. And since many of these budding revolutionaries are still tied to their petit-bourgeois class origins and remain victims of an alienated social psychology created by the circumstances of Jewish history, they can only go so far as to find a compromise in their version of socialist Zionism.

This compromise has had many variants, of which Borochovism was only one, and one which was doomed to become a dead branch of the Zionist movement These other factions of socialist Zionism consisted essentially in an eclectic mixture of these two heterogeneous ingredients. At most, a synthesis between Zionism and socialism was spoken of, but this only emphasized the fact that their theory was a derivation of two completely different elements and premises.

As an ideology there was always something special about Borochovism: Rather than merge the two concepts superficially, Borochov attempted to deduce Zionism from Marxism. He claimed to start from a purely Marxist position and to arrive at Zionist conclusions without making any extraneous assumptions. This reasoning understandably makes Borochovist theory much more attractive to young people who want to be Zionist but already have a taste for Marxism. For Marxism by its very nature is a monist theory that does not mix well with alien ingredients. A “synthesis” consisting of Marxism and any kind of nationalism has always been unacceptable, particularly today, due to the general disfavor nationalism has fallen into – both in Marxist and non-Marxist circles.

More than ever before, socialists are unwilling to support nationalist causes unless they can be justified without making any theoretical concessions to nationalism, that is, they must be on purely socialist grounds such as wars of national liberation against imperialism.

All this serves to explain the new demand for Borochovist theory. It is the only existing brand of Zionist ideology that suits the tastes of young Jews in the West who have become radicalized and exposed to present-day socialist currents and the tradition of Marxist thought, but who at the same time are seeking a compromise between joining the revolutionary struggle and opting out of it.

There is also much to be said about the ample supply of Borochovist literature and propaganda. The present purveyors of this ideology are not Borochovists; they do not belong to a Borochovist-oriented party in Israel, nor to a Borochovist group in the Zionist movement. Such a party or group does not exist, and the professional peddlers of Borochovism have no intention of creating one. In fact, they do not believe a word of the gospel they are preaching.

During 1968, the author became well acquainted with some young people newly arrived from Latin America. They were experiencing a very painful disillusionment upon finding the realities in Israel so different from the image painted by Israeli emissaries sent to their countries of origin. One bewildering discovery was that they could find hardly a trace of the Borochovism which had been fed to them in Latin America. When one of the immigrants happened to meet that emissary who had originally indoctrinated him with Borochovism (and who had subsequently been transferred back to Israel) he was delighted at last to have found a true Borochovist with whom he could have an interesting discussion. When he eagerly raised the subject, the emissary responded, “Oh, Borochov, he was just a third-rate sociologist whom we merely use in Latin America to attract the Jewish youth away from Castroism!” To which my friend could only reply sadly, “And I was one of them …”

The Zionist propagandists are prepared to use all sorts of means to attract the Jewish youth in the West away from Castroism, Trotskyism and various other “harmful” ideas and movements. And if one of the methods is to indoctrinate them with an ideology that the propagandists themselves do not believe in, the latter console themselves by assuring us that this is only a temporary measure, because “when they [the young Jews] come to us, we shall regain the initiative.” 18

  1. The Class Struggle and the National Question, in Arthur Herzberg’s The Zionist Idea, New York: Temple Press Book, 1969. This anthology provides a good summary of Borochov’s ideas and includes some of his original works.
  2. Our Platform (hereafter referred to as OP), p.193.  All citations from Ber Borochov are from the Hebrew editions of his works, published in 1955 by Hakibutz Hameuohad and Sifriath Poalim, in Israel.
  3. OP, p.197.
  4. OP, p.240 (italics added). Borochov is referring to the proletarianization of the middle class and to the territorial solution of the Jewish question.
  5. This is made absolutely clear not only in the remarks quoted above, but again in the beginning of the fifth chapter of OP, which contains a sharp and detailed polemic against rival left Zionist theories on this very point. This assertion occupies such a central position in Borochovist theory that without it the theory loses even its formal claim as proletarian Zionism, and becomes ordinary (i.e., classless or bourgeois) Zionism.
  6. OP, p.204.
  7. Ibid., p.203.
  8. The Role of the Proletariat in the Realization of Territorialism, p.324. Originally published in Yiddish as a sequel to OP in 1907
  9. OP, pp.219-20.
  10. Ibid., p.264.
  11. In a carefully written letter, Chaim Weitzmann, the emerging leader of political Zionism, reported to Herzl on the situation in Russia in 1903: “The Zionist movement failed here since it did not succeed in attracting the best of the Jewish youth”. He described the acute economic situation and the typical reaction of the Jews: to join the revolutionary socialist movement.

     

    “In general, West European Jewry thinks that the majority of East European Jewish youth belongs to the Zionist camp. Unfortunately, the contrary is true. The lion’s share of the youth is anti-Zionist, not from an assimilationist point of view as in West Europe, but rather as a result of their revolutionary mood.

    “It is impossible to describe how many became the victims of police oppression because of membership in the Jewish Social Democracy – they are sent to jail and left to rot in Siberia; 9,000 are under state surveillance … and I am not speaking only of the youth of the proletariat … Almost the entire Jewish student body stands firmly behind the revolutionary camp. This revolutionary movement has captured the spirit of the very young. During my stay in Minsk, 200 Jewish Social Democrats were arrested, all of whom were under seventeen years of age. This is a terrible vision … and all this is accompanied by a distaste for Jewish nationalism which borders on self-hatred.”

    Weitzmann concluded that the Zionist movement must do everything possible to encourage and gain influence among the youth. See Ma’ariv, Mar. 3, 1971.

  12. OP, Chapter 2.
  13. The Role of the Proletariat …, p. 323.
  14. These arguments are discussed further in On the Question of Zion and a Territory, Chapter 9 (in Russian), 1905; see also OP, Chapter 9.
  15. On the Question of Zion and a Territory, Chapter 9; OP, Chapter 8.
  16. OP, p.282.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ben-Aharon, A Change of Values in the Relation between Israel and the Diaspora, in Ot (Letter), No.2, Feb. 1967. Ben-Aharon is a prominent Israeli Labor Party ideologist and at present the Secretary General of the Histadrut.

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