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Biography of Ber Borochov

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Ber Borochov - Biography

Ber Borochov was born June 22, (or July 4, according to the new calendar) 1881 in  Zolotonshi in the Poltava district of the Ukraine.  Two months after his birth Borochovís parents moved to  Poltava.  A branch of' 'Hovevei Tzion  was established there, and Borochovís father Moses Aaron, a Hebrew teacher, was an active member.

His father, Moshe Aharon, a Maskil of the former generation, had progressive views. His house was a meeting place for members of the BILU and for pioneers of the Second Aliya as well as for Jewish intellectuals and writers.

Labor Zionism: Ber Borochov - a founder of Socialist Zionism
Ber Borochov (1881-1917)

 

Among the guests were A.Z. Rabinowitz, an early Hebrew writer who favored national and social revival, the founders of Gedera, the father of Yitzhak Ben Zvi and others. Borochov's orientation to the land of Israel and the heritage of the Jewish people were embedded in his childhood experiences. When he was eleven years old he tried to run away from home and go on Aliya to Palestine. He was caught and returned. However, young Borochov did not get a basic Hebrew education.

Borochov attended the government Gymnasium (high school). He did not know enough Hebrew to write in it, and though he later became one of the greatest researchers of the Yiddish language, he did not know it well as a youth.

At school, Borochov came in contact with other ideologies, even though quiet agrarian Poltava was an out of the way place with little industry, because  Poltava had become a town of exile for revolutionaries and dissidents. The best of the progressive intelligentsia were concentrated there, those who formed the Social Democratic and Social Revolutionary parties in later years. They had great influence among young students.

Borochov participated in study groups that were the fore-runners of revolutionary cells, and was recognized as a leader. At that time he was mostly interested in philosophy, but studied social sciences, history, and economics, gaining a broad knowledge of Marxist literature. From youth he excelled as a gifted lecturer and profound analyst, as well as an organizer and central person.

Borochov joined the Social Democratic party while still a student. He did not enter a university owing to his resentment over antisemitism. 

When he lived in Yekatrinoslav (now Dniepropetrovsk) his was active in the S.D., lecturing to workers and students. However, the policy of the S.D. regarding the Jewish problem did not satisfy him. He was expelled from the party in May 1901, for nationalist deviationism, and organized a labor club with Socialist Zionist leanings. Borochov tried to merge Socialsim and Zionism. At that time, he founded, together with S. Dubin (Shimoni) one of the first associations of "Zionist Socialist Poalei Tziyon" with a membership of about a hundred, workers, clerks, apprentices. From the start, this movement met with the opposition of official Zionist circles,

In its first year of existence, Poalei Tziyon in Yekatrinozlav organized a self defense group, that fought with gangs of rioters, and it led a workers' strike. In 1902 Borochov published his first article in print on "The characteristics of the Jewish mind.' He saw in the tendency to monism a defining characteristic of Jewish thought. The article was a reply to the thesis of Karl Kautsky concerning the supposed Jewish tendency to abstraction and generalization.

The period of 1901 to 1905 were years of revolutionary ferment in Russia, which suffered under the yoke of Tsarist absolutism, years of crisis and deprivation, riots and growth of new forces in the Jewish community. The Zionist workers party was initially in a state of organizational and ideological chaos. In parallel a severe struggle raged in the Russian Social Democratic party, leading to development and crystallization of opposing factions.

Borochov spent this time in research and thought, slowly forming the basis of his world view, and principles of his ideology. His opposition to the then-current Zionist-Socialist notion of non-proletarianization caused his alienation from the movement for a while. He saw this doctrine, which claimed that the Jewish proletariat could never be proletarianized because of opposition by anti-Semites, as self-contradictory and illogical (if it couldn't be proletarianized it was not a proletariat) and as removing any basis for a proletarian Zionist movement (if there are no workers, there is no need for a workers' movement).

His article "On the Question of Zionist Theory" in February of 1905 is deeply pessimistic regarding the future of the Diaspora. However, it does not reflect his later more mature thought.

The controversy over Uganda  catalyzed Borochov into public action. His materialist-historical vision helped him to understand the place of the land of Israel in the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, and to see the artificiality of   that favored the Uganda plan. His essay, "To the Question of Zion and Territory" reflects these views. Unfortunately, the

Borochov joined the Poalei Tziyon Party in November 1905, after the Sixth Zionist Congress, when the question of the "night refuge" in Uganda (the supposed offer by the British of Uganda as a Jewish national home, which created a temporary split in the Zionist movement resulting in Territorial Zionism)  was raised. His opposition to Uganda or  any other territory than Palestine being made the new Jewish homeland resulted in his famous essay "To the Question: Zion and Territory." However, the pressure of the recent pogroms made this solution popular. Another solution favored by Poalei Tziyon members at that time, was the idea of Jewish political autonomy or territorial autonomy within the Diaspora, notions that were popular with some other socialists as well. Borochov rejected both of these solutions. At the Poltava conference (November 1905), Borochov helped to formulate the Poalei Tziyon program. The Poltava conference was held in the shadow of the Tzarist counter-revolutionary terror. Some of the participants in the conference were arrested, including Borochov. The members of the central commitee later met secretly in Constantinograd and in Simferopol in the Crimea to complete the patform. Borochov did most of the work, which was later published as  Our Platform in July 1906, and which he published in the journal he edited, Yevraiskaya Ravotzaya Chronika - The Jewish Workers' Chronicle, along with other materials under various pseudonyms.

On June 3, 1906, the Czarist government disbanded the Duma, and on the same night Borochov was apparently  arrested again. He soon escaped from prison and settled for a time in Minsk. Constantly spied on by the police, Borochov was forced to leave Russia, and in the latter part of 1907 he left for Krakow and then to the Hague.  In the summer of 1907, Borochov helped found the World Confederation of Poalei Tziyon when he attended the world congress held in Krakow. He became a member of its administration and for a time was also its secretary.

He went to Vienna to edit the Party organ, Das Freie Wort (The Free Words), from 1907 to 1910.  Borochov visited England, France, Belgium, Holland and Switzerland. He was a correspondent for a number of European and American Jewish papers. During this period he also attempted unsuccessfully to unite the  Jewish socialist and labor parties.

During these wanderings, Borochov was married to a friend from Poltava, Luba Meltzer, who joined him in Switzerland. He kept in touch with the remnants of the Russian party in a period of severe persecutions and underground activity.

His financial situation in these wanderings was poor, and his little family was often in distress. His plans for visiting Palestine were postponed for lack of means, but he continued to study, learn languages and write a series of important studies including, The Jewish Workers' Movement in Numbers. He also became a Yiddish philologist , and wrote works on Marxist and proletarian ethics.

With the outbreak of the World War, Borochov was forced to leave Austria, and he came to the United States.  He became one of the outstanding proponents of a democratically organized American and World Jewish Congress. Borochov remained a Social Democrat and protested against sections of Poalei Tziyon  which joined the Bolsheviks.  In March of 1917, the Mensheviks came to power in Russia. Borochov returned to Europe en route to Russia. He stopped in Stockholm and helped to prepare the memorandum containing the Poalei Tsiyon demands before the Holland-Scandinavian Socialist Conference. Leaving his wife and family in Stockholm,  he proceeded to Russia to attend the Third All-Russian Poalei Tziyon Convention. In Russia, Borochov contracted pneumonia and died in Kiev on December 17, 1917 at the age of 36. In 1963, his remains were reinterred in the cemetery at Kibbutz Kinneret, alongside the other founders of Socialist Zionism.

Ber Borochov - Ideology

Borochov's ideological stands changed throughout his life. His signal achievement was to derive Socialist Zionism from classic Marxian theory, thereby providing an ideological framework for Zionist revolutionaries. The hallmark of his ideology was the belief that economic forces alone did not determine history and that each people was subject to unique national conditions, that were being ignored by Marxist historians. These questions are dealt with at length in "The National Question and the Class Struggle." Borochov also advanced a mechanistic "Borochovian" explanation of the Jewish problem, based on the fact that the Jews, being guests everywhere, were never fully integrated into the class structure of their society, and were restricted by law from following those occupations that were closest to the core of national economies. The Jewish class structure formed an "inverted pyramid" with fewer real proletarians and more professionals, intelligentsia  and people engaged in non-essential consumer production, according to Borochov. As economies developed, native populations produced their own professionals and intelligentsia, and competition for jobs in all spheres intensified. This generated antisemitism, because native populations coveted the jobs and positions of Jews, and it forced Jews to migrate from country to country, in a "stychic process" that would inevitably bring them to their own country,. Palestine, when all other possibilities were exhausted. This mechanistic ("vulgar determinist') view gave way to an understanding of the spiritual and cultural roots of Zionism, and a more humanistic view in his last recorded speech.

Borochov's views on the Arab question formed the basis of socialist Zionist ideology, and refute the charges that Zionists planned to expel the Arabs of Palestine. In his last recorded speech, Borochov said:

Many point out the obstacles which we encounter in our colonization work. Some say that he Turkish law hinders our work, others contend that Palestine is insignificantly small, and still others charge us with the odious crime of wishing to oppress and expel the Arabs from Palestine...

When the waste lands are prepared for colonization, when modern technique is introduced, and when the other obstacles are removed, there will be sufficient land to accommodate both the Jews and the Arabs. Normal relations between the Jews and Arabs will and must prevail. (Ber Borochov - Eretz Yisrael in our program and tactics, Kiev, Sept. 1917)

 

Borochov believed that Arab and Jewish proletariat would have similar class interests, and would develop a common front in the class struggle. This ideology did not fit the reality of Palestine before WW I, where Arabs were competing with Jews for jobs. It was also strangely at odds with Borochov's evidently correct understanding of the conflict between national and class factors in Europe, which accurately predicted the course of the Soviet Revolution, the disunity of the socialist movement in World War I and even foresaw the rise of virulent nationalism and anti-Semitism in Germany. While subsequently, the Zionist workers movements  tried to establish joint organizations with Palestinian Arabs, these were doomed to failure, an outcome that Borochov could have predicted.

The National Question and the Class Struggle  deals with the central contribution of Borochov to Marxist thought. Stripped of the Marxist jargon, Borochov's thesis amounts to pointing out that nationalist and ethnic motives play as strong a part in history as class ideology. The thesis was to prove itself correct, tragically, not only for the Jewish people, who were eventually ejected from the mainstream of Bolshevik politics, but also for the German Social Democrats who supported World War I, and again it would prove itself correct in Soviet imperialism and Stalin's genocidal nationalities policies. A fuller and more systematic exposition may be found in Our Platform.

Borochovian ideology was a cornerstone of the Poalei Tziyon movement, and in particular of Hashomer Hatzair (later MAPAM - the United Workers Party of Israel), which opted for a binational state solution until this proved to be impractical.

Ami Isseroff

See also:

1905: Ber Borochov - The National Question and the Class Struggle

Poalei Tziyon - Our Platform 1906

1916: Ber Borochov - The Economic Development of the Jewish People

Ber Borochov - Eretz Yisrael in our program and tactics

Poalei Tziyon Peace Platform 1917

 

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