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The Jewish Labor Bund

A model for modern-day labor movements

by Asher Elbein

There was a time when Jewish shopworkers could help bring a nation to a standstill by walking out of work, their strikes supported by a deep, community-wide network of support and training. Progressives seldom mention the Jewish Labor Bund anymore, but it was once the most powerful Jewish socialist movement in Eastern Europe, with a philosophy that influences modern labor politics to this day.

The place: 19th century Imperial Russia. The borders of the empire contained one of the largest concentrations of Jews in the world, a population increasingly left behind by modernity. Groups of Jewish intellectuals hosted illegal local meetings to tutor Jewish workers in Marxist and enlightenment thought and support them in labor strikes. With the world changing and antisemitism growing, the future of European Jewry was in question. The answer was the General Jewish Labor Bund in Russia, founded in Vilna in 1897. Its central principle was the Yiddish idea of doikayt, “hereness,” a local approach to Jewish struggle and labor politics that opposed ideas like Zionism. “The idea wasn’t to immigrate to another country,” says David Slucki, a historian at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. “It’s to stay here and fix the country that we live in. It wasn’t a party so much as a movement.”

Its central principle was the Yiddish idea of doikayt, “hereness,” a local approach to Jewish struggle and labor politics.

The Bund was primarily a Jewish organization and organized for labor rights inside the community while defending workers from antisemitism. It quickly gathered strength, playing a central role in the 1905 Russian Revolution, and recruiting some 40,000 members by 1906, making it the largest socialist organization in Russian territory. The outbreak of World War I split the Russian and Polish Bund into separate entities. While the Russian Bund eventually dissolved into the larger communist party, the Polish Bund reached its full flower in the interwar years. Able to operate legally, they created a cradle-to-grave pipeline, with children going to Bundist schools and graduating to work in Bundist unions. By the 1930s, one hundred thousand Jewish workers were unionized with the Bund, a quarter of the total union workers in Poland. The Bund’s strength placed it at the forefront of Polish labor struggle: in 1936, Bund-led general strikes effectively shut down the country.

While Russia and Poland were the centers of Bund power, smaller groups of Bundist exiles and emigres established communities elsewhere—in Western Europe first, then in the United States, Argentina, and places as far-flung as Melbourne, Australia. But by the end of World War II, the Bund itself had faltered. In Russia, it was obliterated by the Stalinists; in Europe, much of the Jewish working class died in—or were driven out by—the Holocaust. As Zionism took on a larger space in the international Jewish sphere, Bundism waned: eventually reformed into a world federation, its direct influence on the world is marginal at best. But its legacy lingers, particularly among communities built by Jewish refugees to the United States during the early twentieth century, which have kept the Bund’s labor-minded politics alive.

“Bundists immigrants infused the US labor movement with all of this energy and these ideas,” Slucki says. “The movement pioneered all these theories about how minorities organize to have a full expression in the countries in which they live.”

CONTRIBUTOR

Asher Elbein

Asher Elbein is a freelance journalist and fiction writer residing in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Texas Observer, Bitter Southerner, Oxford American, and Audubon

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Photo credit: Eric Kilby

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