A Ghost Haunting Communism
If, according to Marx, communism is a ghost haunting Europe, then for Borochov, nationalism was a ghost haunting communism.
Ber Borochov(1881–1917) is the author of many works in various fields of knowledge, from political philosophy to linguistics. His work, “The Jewish Labor Movement in Figures,” displays a statistical and sociological analysis of the Jewish people’s social structure and economic processes. He was the one who ultimately created a solid opposition to the Bund and other non-ZIonist Jewish factions. His view and works eventually morphed into the socialist base of the future State of Israel.
Ber Borochov put forward in the essays “The National Question and the Class Struggle” (1905), “Our Platform” (1906), and “Economic Development of the Jewish People” (1916), the concept of the organic unity of Marxist theory and the national aspirations of the Jewish people. This synthesis of the ideas of class struggle and Zionism, once called “Borochovism,” contradicted the tendency prevailing in the era of Borochov (and today), under which Marxists rejected any nationalism or patriotism (including Jewish) as a reactionary ideology.
Didn’t Marx and Engels declare in the Communist Manifesto that “workers have no fatherland”? Did they not assert that “national differences and antagonisms between peoples are disappearing more and more due to the development of the bourgeoisie, freedom of trade, the world market, uniformity in the mode of production and the living conditions corresponding to it”? On the contrary, national differences intensified in the 20th century.
Most Marxist theorists have never seriously dealt with this problem with a few notable exceptions. Instead of developing a materialist theory of nationalism, they assumed that it was only a temporary phenomenon — a profoundly reactionary phenomenon or, as in Lenin’s case, it is a tactical question (in which national culture as such ultimately had no actual value).
The very notion of socialist internationalism seemed to nullify nationalism.
The main theoretical achievement of Ber Borochov was an attempt to synthesize nationalism and socialism. He had a particular national problem — the problem of the Jews. Borochov was a Zionist who tried to synthesize socialism with a form of nationalism that was not popular on the far-left. The Jewish question, including Zionism, was and still is almost as problematic for the left as the national question.
We see it when Marx, in his 1843 essay “On the Jewish Question,” followed by the support of Jewish assimilation of Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, and until the current “woke” hostility of the left towards the very existence of a Jewish State.
Borochov presented the mass migration of Jews to Palestine as a socially natural embodiment of the aspirations of the Jewish proletariat, which is in highly challenging conditions in the countries of the diaspora, where it is cut off from the production process and rapid industrialization.
The three works mentioned above reveal all aspects of Borochov’s Marxist Zionist synthesis. The “National Question” begins with an attempt to define the relationship between class and nation in materialistic terms.
Marx declared in his famous preface to “To the Critique of Political Economy” (1859) that in the “social production of their lives,” people enter into “relations of production” that do not depend on their will. Industrial relations constitute property relations on the economic basis of society. Revolution, according to Marx, is the result of a conflict between developing productive forces and existing relations of production. For example, as new, capitalist productive forces grew in the bosom of feudal society, the relations of production in that society, the feudal property of the lord and serf, became the impediments of these emerging productive forces. Thus, the revolutionary bourgeoisie ultimately had to oppose the feudal ruling class.
Borochov believed that this analysis is necessary for a materialist understanding of modern society but insufficient for understanding nationalism. Production, says Borochov, depends on different conditions at different times and places. Thus, it is necessary to consider their production relations and the differing production requirements. These conditions “are geographical, anthropological and historical.” Historical conditions include conditions created within a given social subject and conditions imposed by neighboring groups. “Natural, geographical conditions prevailing in historical and social conditions become primary.”
“We can talk about the relative distinguishability of social groups only because there is a relative uniqueness of the conditions of production under which each group must develop its life,” says Borochov. He argues that as a result of material and historical development, there are two main types of human groups or “societies,” determined by the conditions of production (such as peoples, nations, etc.), and “classes,” defined under production relations.
The class struggle arises in the conflict between relations and the developing productive forces. Meanwhile, the national struggle occurs when developing the national productive forces requires improved production conditions. In contrast to “Questions of Zionist Theory,” Borochov asserts here that we should understand the national struggle primarily in the materialistic and economic sense. However, his materialistic analysis concretizes the statements he has already made in earlier essays.
The “National Question’s” assertion that national conflicts result from national aspirations to improve production conditions is a materialist version. Borochov continues to develop several definitions. He argues that a “people” (social group) set in similar production conditions can be called a “nation” when its members develop self-awareness. The feeling of kinship created from a conceived common historical past and rooted in the general conditions of production is called nationalism or patriotism. And territory is a critical condition for producing all other similar situations. For the emergence of nationalism, the production conditions must be, as it were, nationalized, united on a given plot of land. Historically, this happened with the rise of the bourgeoisie.
Under normal conditions of production, class antagonism intensifies, while under abnormal conditions, class and national identity tend to confuse each other to the detriment of the oppressed. Then comes known antisemitism and scapegoatism in general. All this is particularly important for the proletariat because the national question affects the worker through his place of work, territory, language, and history.
The progressive nationalism of the oppressed proletariat fights to create normal production conditions for itself, thereby providing a “strategic basis” for the class struggle.
“Our Platform” is Borochov’s most extensive work. Applies these ideas to the Jewish question and criticism of the rivals of Socialist-Zionists such as the assimilationists, the Bund, Galutniks.
“Jews are a classic abnormal, expatriated nation,” He says. “Lacking their material conditions, Jews are “helpless in the national competition.” Borochov denies that any struggle is equally in the interests of all national classes and sees the roots of antisemitism in the competition between Jewish and non-Jewish petty bourgeoisie and proletariat. He further develops his argument by analyzing Jewish class structure and tendencies. “Jewish capital,” he wrote, “is mainly invested in producing consumer goods and not in the main means of production.” Because of antisemitism, Jewish labor is, to a large extent was employed by the middle-class Jewish bourgeoisie. As this bourgeoisie is driven out by national competition, it is forced to migrate, and the Jewish proletariat follows it: “The Jewish question migrates with the Jews.”
In the “Economic Development of the Jewish People,” Borochov shows, using data from the Russian census of 1897, that the percentage of Jews at any given production level “directly depends on its remoteness from nature,” in contrast to other “normal” nations. At least 50 percent of Jewish workers were engaged in producing goods directly for the consumer. The root of the problem was landlessness. He also argues that Jews faced a particular problem as capitalism developed further. According to Marx, a constant capital (the actual means of production, machines, etc.) grows at the expense of variable wages.
Using Marx’s somewhat vague definition of terms, Borochov argues that as machines drive out workers, Jews will face an even more significant problem because there are few Jews in the production of capital goods. Thus leading to a further wandering of the Jews.
Borochov’s main theoretical contribution was the synthesis of class struggle and nationalism when the prevailing Marxist theory rejected all and, above all, Jewish nationalism as reactionary.
Borochov viewed the mass resettlement of Jews to their historical homeland as a social pattern resulting from the desire of the Jewish proletariat to seek a way out of the problematic situation in the diaspora, where it is cut off from production processes.
It was not Borochov’s unique formation of the “spontaneous” process that was important for the Jewish world, but rather his presentation of a consistent ideological synthesis for those attracted by socialism and Zionism.