Translation: Boris Frumkin “The Zionist Socialist Utopia”

Rida Vaquas


Why translate an article about Zionism from 1908? What can a critique of Zionism when it was a political aspiration for the Jewish diaspora teach us about criticising Zionism today, eighty years after the Holocaust, when a Jewish state has been established and, for many Jews, is recognised as a necessity for their safety? The cynical reader may be inclined to dismiss it by title alone: “utopia”, a no-such-place. Has Boris Frumkin not committed the same “mistake” as Rosa Luxemburg in Poland of assuming a new state to be unviable – and been proven wrong by history? Readers hoping to find a ready-made solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict today will be disappointed.

But that these questions are the ones asked is precisely why we need to retrieve the history of Marxist discussions of Zionism and other nationalisms. Much of the Left today has accepted a basic premise that nations have a “right to self-determination”, or the right to form a new state, and a socialist programme must help them realise this right. Where territory is contested, either one nation’s right to “self-determination” is deemed as illegitimate or a kind of fantasy is pursued where it is pretended there could be an equitable “carving out” of states in which one is not perpetually subordinated to the other. The national question for socialism today tends to have only one solution: make a new state.

When self-determination was a contested issue rather than a staple of a programme, the national question was rather different. It is better understood as many national questions, of which a few are: What is the class basis that underpins a nationalist movement? Should a socialist party pursue nationalist aims? Can nationalist aims be achieved in the course of class struggle? And most importantly, how do we maintain the political independence and coherence of the working class party when entering the arena of nationalist politics? 

In presenting how socialists approached these questions, we might come to different conclusions to the national questions of our own times.

This article appeared in Die Neue Zeit, the main theoretical journal of the International, in early 1908, as a comment on the Zionist Socialist Labour Party of Russia (a group founded in 1905, which quickly vanished from the political scene after the highpoint of appearing at the Stuttgart Congress of the Second International). Boris Frumkin, the most prominent publicist of the Jewish Bund, under the pseudonym of B. Rosin, took his pen to tear down the premises of Zionist socialism, quickly leaving aside the “tragicomedy” of the Stuttgart Congress.

For Frumkin, territorialism was not a beacon of progress but a utopia of despair, one that presumed the persecution and marginalisation of Jewish people in Europe would never end. It betrayed the working class political independence, as even the “socialist” strain of Zionism nonetheless required collegial relationships with colonial powers. And it was not a goal that could be achieved by the struggle of the working class and hence build class power, but instead diverted class conscious workers into a scheme of bourgeois diplomacy. What’s ultimately implicit in Frumkin’s analysis is that Zionist socialists, despite their protestations, are simply tailing movements beyond their control.

Frumkin’s criticism was largely shared by Karl Kautsky, who made his own sympathies clear by simply not publishing any of the Zionist opponents to the Bund’s position in the pages of Die Neue Zeit. Kautsky’s own writings on Zionism, even following his rightward turn after 1914, maintained that while he had every sympathy with the idea of a homeland for Jews, the actual prospects for the realisation of Zionism were far too dim and could endanger Jewish people as much as it could save them. In Kautsky’s perspective, working class agitation for democratic rights and an end to discrimination provided a solution to the undoubtable persecution of Jewish people across Europe.

Arguing for class struggle as the resolution to religious and national oppressions strikes many socialists today as blithe historical optimism that underestimates the both pull of nationalist movements and the severity of persecution. Even Rosa Luxemburg, otherwise one of the most respected thinkers in Marxism, attracts criticism for her unflinching opposition to the independence of Poland, some decrying her for economic determinism and others for alleged colonialism. But Luxemburg and Frumkin, in his analysis of Zionism, demonstrate that anti-nationalism did not emerge from a ‘blindspot’ to particular persecutions, but a sensitivity to them. They rejected what they saw as unrealisable pipe dreams in order to pursue building up working class power to obtain democratic rights, including the freedoms of national culture.

Was this the wrong calculation? The world in which these debates took place dissolved upon the declaration of World War One. Since then, the twentieth century brought nothing but nation states, regardless of how negatively orthodox Marxists may have viewed these states’ economic existence. And yet, we are still here trying to solve the national question. The establishment of nation states has not lessened the suffering of national, religious and ethnic minorities within them: conflicts continue to arise about how borders are drawn, secessionist movements continue to spawn, and minorities all over the world are deprived of civic rights. Frumkin is correct in the accusation of “utopianism”, not in the sense that a Zionist state was unachievable, but that a Zionist state would make things better. Socialists who supported nationalist movements made a wager that free, autonomous nation states would clear the way for socialist agitation within them – and they lost.

There’s no question of seeking to undo the twentieth century, to will away the states it has created, from Israel to Poland to Pakistan. But rediscovering our history allows us to pose a different set of national questions, instead of copying the wrong answer again and again.


The Zionist Socialist Utopia by B. Rosin, January 1908

At the Stuttgart Congress, a little tragicomedy played out, which remained completely unrecognised for the vast majority of congress participants and quickly sank into oblivion among the small group of comrades who were aware of it. This was the question of the participation of the Zionist socialists at Congress. The International Socialist Bureau recognised them as a deliberative vote of the Russian section. Actually the Zionist socialists remained outside the International, because the Russian section to which they turned did not accept them and hence the question of the situation of the Zionist socialists in the International will come under negotiation again at the next session of International Bureau. 

What does this organisation represent and why does the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party and especially the “Bund” protest against their participation in the Congress so energetically?

The essence of modern so-called political Zionism was formulated at the first inaugural congress of Zionists in August 1897. This is it: “the endeavour to establish for the Jewish people a publicly and legally assured homeland in Palestine.”

According to the ideas of the founder of Zionism with Dr. Herzl [Theodor Herzl] at the head, this plan should be realized through diplomatic negotiations with the European powers and the Sublime Porte, which would have the effect of voluntarily ceding Palestine to the Jews and the latter would secure their colonial fortification with the help of various capitalist enterprises.

As long as – the Zionists taught – the Jews are living dispersed between different peoples, as unwelcome guests at a stranger’s party, they will be a burden everywhere, they will be forced out from everywhere; as the weak ones, they will always be the first victims of competition and national antagonisms. From these pessimistic assumptions, an indifference towards political and social struggles logically follows, which rages in the countries where Jews appear only as coincidental, temporary and almost exclusively suffering elements. The Jews – as the disciples of Zionism taught – must ultimately give up squandering all their power and abilities for foreign peoples and foreign countries and solely dedicate themselves to the cause of their own liberation.

The second practical conclusion of the Zionist worldview was that the common national cause must expel any inner struggle, whether it bore a class character or any other, from the Jewish people.

Zionist agitation found echoes in the hears of the declassed Jewish intelligentsia and petty bourgeoisie but it only encountered indifference among the Jewish proletariat and the major capitalists.

Even at the time of the emergence of Zionism, the Jewish proletariat already began to acquire a socialist worldview for its spirit under the influence of “Bund”. As far as the Jewish capitalists are concerned, naturally the transfer of their capital to Palestine is nothing appealing for them. And so the Zionists became a national movement without the participation of the nation, at least without the viable classes of the Jewish nation. In this state of affairs, the Zionists felt the complete unsustainability of their position all too soon. The hope that the Zionists could win the Jewish bourgeoisie for their ranks soon had to fall and they felt the necessity all the more strongly to find a pillar for their cause in the person of the Jewish worker.

Therefore they had to work out a somewhat appealing present programme for the workers. But the implementation of the latter unavoidably had to lead to a clash in the diaspora – in Russia namely – between the ruling political and economic regime and national pressures. Consequently they saw themselves forced to drive forward contemporary politics, to take refuge in the organisation of a political party that, as we’ve seen earlier, did not correspond at all to the nature of Zionism. Nonetheless the Zionists found a way out of this situation. They developed a programme of cultural and economic activity in the framework of what was permitted that did not dare to shake the pillars of Tsarism.

This accelerated the disintegration of Zionism and started the scene of the diverse Zionist labour organisations.

In the first beginnings, not a single organisation of ‘labour Zionists’ (Poalei-Zion) intended to separate itself from bourgeois Zionism and to oppose it with a class organisation of the Jewish proletariat. Zionist labour organisations solely pursued the aim of ‘Zionising’ the workers, to instil the idea of bourgeois Zionism in them and to democratice the same, and therefore the aim was only to exert pressure on the “higher” spheres of Zionism through the injection of democratic elements. The founders of these organisations suspended the struggle for socialism until that blissful time when the Jews will be settled on their own soil. Provisionally they preached, like all Zionists, the same solidarity of interests amongst all classes of Jews, the same indifference towards the emancipation movement, where it developed where Jews lived and they permitted only a very modest struggle for improvement of economic conditions.

However, very soon, changes began to occur in the programme of labour Zionism. They could not succeed in detaching themselves from Russian reality. The activity of the Zionists, despite their moderation, began to encounter resistance from the side of the Russian government. The persecution of Jews was too palpable to be able to hold back the masses from directly reacting. The era of pogroms began, which caused labour Zionism in its initial form to disappear from the horizon, and it became clear that a fight with the autocracy was unavoidable for Zionism, although the destiny of Russia did not matter to them. From this moment, labour Zionism revolutionised itself, and under the pressure of revolutionary events that demonstrated the unsustainability of Zionism with particular obviousness, some groups of labour Zionists felt required to adopt revolutionary and socialist postulates

We only want to observe further that even the term “Zionism” stopped corresponding with its traditional linguistic definition with time. The Zionist socialists are distancing themselves from the actual Zion, but maintain in full force the demand of the officially and legally assured homesteads in any resulting territory.


The fact that the Zionist socialists have adopted socialist ideology loses any significance next to the maintenance of the main point of the programme of the petty bourgeois Zionists, the obtaining of a territory. To make the emigration of the proletariat, at least its class conscious sections, into a foreign country the aim of class struggle and the class consolidation of the Jewish proletariat ultimately means nothing other than diverting the proletariat from class and direct revolutionary struggles and turning their attention to something utopian, lying outside of the sphere of class struggle and their means of struggle. The Zionist socialists try to escape this ambiguous situation by occupying themselves with the analysis of the state of economic forces amongst the Jews. In their opinion, this analysis shows us that territorialism is part of the path to the development of the Jewish proletariat and of the normal class struggle amongst Jews more generally. In brief, this analysis brings us to the following (extensively laid out in Lestschinsky’s “The Jewish worker”): On the basis of statistical materials about the conditions of the Jewish proletariat in Russia, the Zionists endeavour to establish that Jewish workers are almost exclusively employed in small industry and in small workshops, where they cannot successfully improve their conditions, because craft workshops cannot keep up with competition from factories without great exploitation of workers. A segment of Jewish workers finds employment in large industry, but even here their place is in manufacture – in the technically backwards area of production that requires an insignificant capital investment.

The Jewish proletariat is thus pushed out of large industry, has no relation to Jewish big business, is disempowered through its dispersal in small workshops, and in such conditions, they cannot play any role in political and national existence, as they are condemned to degeneration alongside the dying out crafts and manufacture.

Proceeding from this analysis, the Zionist socialists assert that the Jewish proletariat, once excluded from the processes of capitalist development, cannot be active founders of socialism, and that normal class struggle is impossible amongst Jews. There can only be this eventuality when the objective material conditions for it are created, when the Jewish nation succeeds in existing as an independent organism, in which Jewish capital has its own internal market and the Jewish proletariat has an adequate place in Jewish large industry.

In such a way, the theoreticians of Zionist socialism cheerfully reached the idea of territorialism.

The declaration, which brought the news of the founding of the party of Zionist socialists in 1903, formulated the idea of territorialism and the tasks of the Jewish proletariat in the realisation of this idea in the following way: In order to create the necessary conditions for free socio-economic, national-political life, the Jewish masses must obtain a free territory, where they would be nationally concentrated and could lead a nationally autonomous existence.

Territorialism is the basis upon which the entire programme of the Zionist socialists is based and it is equally the main point of difference in opinion with the “Bund”. The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party and the “Bund” acted against the Zionist socialists in Stuttgart because of this reason, because the propaganda for the idea of territorialism would inflict great injury upon the development of class consciousness amongst the Jewish proletariat, an even more dangerous injury when it is fully costumed with socialist and revolutionary mythology.

When the Zionist socialists come to speak about the present state of Jewish economic life,  they mostly assert undoubtable facts that no one is minded to dispute. However they regard these facts, at least in their essential parts, as unchangeable until the moment of a sharp collapse, which, in their opinion, is only possible in two directions: either Jewish nationality degenerates and vanishes from the horizon, or they acquire for themselves a territory through colonisation and begin to lead an independent economic and state existence. That in the internal and external living conditions of the Jewish people in general and the proletariat in particular during the historical period up to the moment of collapse some kind of evolution could occur is wholly overlooked by the Zionist socialists, as true utopians and metaphysicians. We have inadequate details at our disposal to become informed about the character of the evolution that is taking place in the economic life of the Jewish people. A statistical investigation on the theme of Jewish life has only begun recently, and we possess almost no figures in order to compare the past with the present. But even the sparse material that we possess shows clearly – at least in Russia – that Jewish production is also getting dragged into the current of capitalist life.

Sadly, due to the lack of space, we cannot consider the question about the development of economic and cultural forces amongst Jews. One thing is beyond doubt for us: it does not lead to territorialism.

Even if the present day Jewish masses leave the place they live easily enough and emigrate in their thousands, we should nonetheless not lose sight of the fact that these crowds were put into motion through poverty, through despair, through exceptionally oppressive living conditions, through the impossibility of setting down more or less deep cultural and economic roots in life.

And the masses, who are driven by such incentives, seek bread before all other things and it may be impossible for them to be creators of a new life, pioneers in the colonisation of new territories.

If, however, the living conditions of the Jewish people change in the sense that the Jewish proletariat will find satisfaction for their forces and activity and cultural and national demands in the countries where they now live, it will be just as difficult to convince them of the necessity of a territory and send them on a search for it, just as it is now impossible to achieve this amongst the Jewish capitalists and more or less wealthy classes of the Jewish population.

Territorialism is not an ideal for the future, which will be realised in the process of national life and in the class struggle of the Jewish proletariat. It is a utopia of the present that has been called into being by backwards production, the despair about pauperism. The artificiality and foundational barrenness of territorialism becomes particularly apparent in the practical part of their programme – in their described route to its realisation. In the first moments of its emergence, when they were not so sophisticated in masking their kinship with bourgeois Zionism, they included in their programme – under the rubric of means towards the realisation of territorialism – “free negotiations with the political representatives of states that pursue colonial politics and the foundation of political and financial institutions on a collegial basis.” (See the declaration.)

This naturally has nothing in common with the class struggle of the proletariat and its interests. Later on, when “historical necessity” and “compliance with the method of scientific socialism” appeared on the platform, they no longer mentioned the sins of their youth and the search began for the real historical force that would be called to realise territorialism. Such a force was finally found in Jewish emigration and the first congress of Zionist socialists (at the beginning of 1906) announced with authority that “the colonising emigration process in its development prepares a real basis and foundation for the future Jewish society.” The spontaneity of Jewish emigration, which arises from its necessity, its tendency towards concentration, the obstacles that this emigration encounters on its way which force to seek out new paths constantly, all of this is conducive to the conditions that are beneficial for the realisation of territorialism, according to the perspective of the Zionist socialists. The stream of emigration must be contained and channelled back into the backwards countries where Jewish people would move as colonisers, as representatives of a higher culture and where they could lay the cornerstone of the publicly and legally assured homeland for the Jewish nation.

Despite the obvious utopia of territorialism and its conflict with the tasks that the Jewish proletariat has set itself, the Zionist socialists nevertheless find supporters among Jewish workers and their propaganda, that “territorial consciousness”, as they call it, must occupy a corresponding place to class consciousness in Jewish workers, finds a certain resonance.

The given relations in Jewish production and the abundance of the lumpenproletariat amongst the Jews does not correspond at all to a real necessity and inevitability of a territory for the Jews. Territorialism emerges from these conditions but only as a petty-bourgeois utopia, as a fantastical fairytale. This fairytale tells us nothing about the future of the Jewish people, it only demonstrates the absence of a future for the class who created the fairytale.

But this, on the first glance innocent, utopia of the starved craftsmen and insecure intelligentsia introduces demoralisation into the ranks of the Jewish proletariat.

The Zionist socialists speak of class consciousness and class struggle – and simultaneously obscure class consciousness and distract from class struggle, because they foreground aims before the Jewish proletariat that cannot be achieved by the process of class struggle. In their endeavours to win common national goods, they cultivate consciousness of a solidarity of interests across all classes of the Jewish people. National demands, as means in class struggle, are superseded by nationalist tendencies, become an end in themselves, what disruptively stands in the way of the development of a socialist consciousness in the Jewish proletariat.

This is my view of the reason that the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, together with the Bund, continues to lead an energetic struggle with the Zionist Socialists, in full conviction that they are doing a considerable service for the International.