The Decomposition of Zionism – And What Might Succeed It (1904)

Submitted by martin on 6 July, 2020 - 6:29 Author: Leon Trotsky
Max Nordau

The Decomposition of Zionism – And What Might Succeed It (1904). An article by Leon Trotsky, translated by Stan Crooke. It opens with a reference to the assassination attempt against the Zionist leader Max Nordau on 19 December 1903 by a Zionist activist committed to the idea that the wished-for Jewish "homeland" must be in Palestine. Nordau, and the 1903 Zionist Congress, had been willing to consider the "Uganda Plan", under which the British government would instead allocate territory for Jewish settlement in Uganda, then a British colony..


The recent attempt by a Russian Zionist student to kill Max Nordau is another reminder of the Zionist feuding which erupted at the Basle congress held last autumn.

The most recent Zionist congress[1] was a demonstration of impotence. People came together from all over the world to loudly proclaim: “We have not advanced an inch. We have exhausted ourselves. We have used up all the funds entrusted to our methods of work. And we do not see anything ahead. The Sultan caressed Herzl[2] (but who noticed this?) and perhaps he will caress him again – but what then?”

Yes, what then? An answer had to be found. The method of thought precluded a real answer, the psychology of despair prompted a fiction – a pitiful and empty one. Herzl proposed knocking on the door of Africa. Of course, Herzl will take upon himself the question of relations with Chamberlain or Edward VII[3] – what is involved are British possessions. Not for the first time it falls to him to intercede with the princes of the world on behalf of “his” people. This shameless adventurist still reaped stormy applause at the Basle congress. At the congress representatives of the ”Jewish people” could not find even one hand to hold aloft a whip of indignation over the head of this repulsive figure. … Only the hysterical sobs of the romantics of Zion resounded round the meeting chamber at a certain moment – Herzl promised Palestine, but did not deliver it.

But the “leader” did not renounce Palestine. His excursion into Africa was only a military (or, more exactly, commercial) diversion. Here is the kind of “imagery” used by Herzl in defending his political plans from the attacks of the down-at-heel knights of “pure” Zionism: “Let us suppose,” he writes in “Die Welt”[4] after the congress, “I want to acquire a home for myself, even if not my ancestral one, which has transferred into alien hands, then I would certainly not simply rely on the kindness of the current owner. Maybe I will make him a straightforward proposition (Herzl sets off to meet the Sultan). But if he does not agree to this, if he remains intractable (the Sultan, as we know, turned out to be hospitable but “intractable”), then, perhaps, at a certain moment I will announce that I am giving up on the affair. I will choose a home nearby, or even in a street a certain distance away (a hint at Africa), and will conduct serious negotiations about this …. And so on,” – the leader pointedly adds, and then falls silent. You understand what a devilishly cunning plan this is? You pretend that you are buying a homeland in a distant street, you use supposed “serious negotiations” to dull the vigilance of the Sultan, and then… and then you squeeze Palestine out of him and spring it on the Jewish people. Only one thing in all this disturbs us: what if Herzl’s article were to be translated into Turkish and presented to the Sultan? Indeed, he too can also guess what a hellish trap for him lies concealed behind the words “and so on”.

As you can see, it is impossible to go any further than this in barefaced “diplomatic” thieving. But it is also impossible to keep Zionism alive any longer through such crude parables.

Zionism has exhausted its miserable substance, and the Basle congress, we repeat, was a demonstration of its decomposition and impotence. Herzl can still inquire about the price of this or that “homeland” for some time to come, dozens of intriguers and hundreds of simpletons can continue to back his adventures, but Zionism as a movement is already condemned to the loss of all its rights – to a future. This is as clear as day.

The same conclusion has been reached by the author of the pamphlet “The VI Zionist Congress in Basle”, published by the Bund. “The liquidation of Zionism has commenced.” That is incontrovertible. But who will get its clientele? In other words: In what directions will those social elements which lived off it scatter? “Beneath it (Zionism),” says the author, “are concealed perfectly real interests of certain strata, and while those interests exist the movement will not disappear without having left behind a successor. … There will be new enemies, there will be a new struggle.” But who will be this successor? Of course, the decomposition of Zionism will occur in conjunction with the political dismemberment of that conglomerate of social strata which constitutes this “party”. In this instance, what is of interest for us is the future fate of the Zionist left wing, which consists of intellectual and semi-intellectual representatives of bourgeois democracy.

Disillusioned in Zionism and thereby having lost faith in the exodus from Egypt of the Jewish Pale of Settlement by means of the “politics” of running away from their grim abode; driven into opposition by the boot of autocratic-police repression; forced into illegal methods of self-defence by the government practice of the Kishinev and Gomel events – the former left wing of Zionism will inevitably move into the revolutionary ranks. The contemporary national position of the Bund, having split away from the party, will facilitate this process. The army of the Bund will be replenished by those whom the author quoted just a few lines ago wants, for some reason or other, to unfailingly see as “future enemies”. But why? They can even become good friends. And, generally speaking, nothing is more desirable than to change an enemy into a friend. It remains only to ask the question: Is the Bund capable of painlessly assimilating the democratic wing of disillusioned Zionists? And we fear that it is impossible to give a positive answer to this basic question.

It has already been pointed out on more than one occasion that nationalist tendencies have penetrated into the Bund from the bourgeois spheres of Zionism. But such an assertion may appear to be absurd. Was it not the publicists of the Bund who exposed the reactionary character of Zionism? Isn’t the Bund conducting a no-holds-barred struggle against this current? Doesn’t the name of the Bund provoke fits of madness in our good Zionist? All this is absolutely true. But what counts is that it is precisely the internal logic of this very struggle with Zionism which has instilled a nationalist content into the political agitation of the Bund. Most often of all, political struggle is simultaneously political competition, in which much is learnt from the enemy. Finding itself in an atmosphere of heightened national feelings, having the autocracy in front of it and Zionism behind it, the Bund had to emphasise that it itself represented the true national interests of the Jewish masses. Having taken this position, it showed itself incapable of establishing the correct relation between the national and class moments. Here the tragic fate of our party after 1898 weighed upon the particular fate of the Bund. The organisational isolation of the Bund drove the revolutionary energy of its workers into a narrow channels and mercilessly limited – visibly, for a long time – the political horizon of its leaders.

“The smaller the number of individuals taking part in a given social movement, the smaller the degree to which this movement is a mass movement – then the less prominent in it are the general and the naturally determined, and the more dominant are the random and the particular” (Kautsky, “Soc. Revolution”). The proletarian party can define itself only according to a political, i.e. state, framework. Only in this case do “the general and the naturally determined”, i.e. the principles of social democracy, embed themselves in the foundations of the movement. But the sphere of activity of the Bund is not characterised by a state identification but by a national one. “The Bund is the organisation of the Jewish proletariat” – at the time of the first congress this position did not have a political but a technical (in the broad sense of the word) meaning. The Bund was the party organisation adapted for work in those places where the majority of the population speaks the Jewish language. With the “connivance” of the party – which, by virtue of its fragmentation, too often played the role of a ceremonial fiction – the “random” or the “particular” came to dominate over the “general” and “naturally determined”. This organisational-technical fact rose to the level of a national-political “theory”. As is well known, the fifth congress of the Bund[5], which preceded the second congress of the party, proposed a new thesis: “The Bund is the social-democratic organisation of the Jewish proletariat, unrestricted in its activities by any regional borders, and joins the party as its sole representative.” This was how the conflict between the particular and the general was resolved within the Bund. If, at least in intention, the Bund was previously the representative of the social-democratic party in the Jewish proletariat, now it transformed itself into the representative of the interests of the Jewish proletariat, representing them to the social-democratic party. And even more. “To speak in the name of the entire proletariat of a given region in which, apart from other organisations belonging to the party, the Bund is also active, is permissible only with the participation of the latter.” Everything has been turned upside down: the class point of view is subordinated to the national one; the party is placed under the control of the Bund; and the general is secondary to the particular.

The departure of the Bund from the party is the final stage and the result of this five-year-long evolution. And, in turn, the fact of the complete “official” separation of the Bund inevitably serves as a point of departure for the further development of the Bund in the direction of nationalism. We say: inevitable, because on the good will of the leaders of the Bund there weighs down the bad will of their national-political position. The fact that the departure of the Bund from the party coincided with the moment of the fatal crisis in Zionism is, as it were, a historical portent. Having emancipated itself from the control of the “general” and the “naturally determined”, the Bund threw its doors wide open to the “particular”. Assessed objectively, it now constitutes an organised apparatus which could not be better suited to diverting the Jewish proletariat from the road of revolutionary social democracy onto the road of revolutionary-democratic nationalism. Of course, in the subjective consciousness of the Bund there are still preserved sufficient social-democratic “experiences” to combat such a diversion. But the logic of facts is stronger than the inertia of thought. The conclusions which today’s leaders of the Bund dare to make will be made tomorrow by those who replace them. Having established its current position on the basis of a national point of view, the Bund has facilitated the transition into its ranks of those elements whose thinking is not embarrassed by social-democratic traditions. They will arrive – they are already on their way – and imperiously remove those who appear to them to be “doctrinaires”. Of course, the Bund will preserve its socialist phraseology for a long time – just as the PPS[6] has preserved it down to the present day. But in no way will this hinder it – on the contrary, it will help it – in fulfilling that political function which the same PPS fulfils with such success, that is: the swallowing-up of the class interests of the proletariat by the nationalist interests of revolutionary democracy. Yes, the publicist of the Bund was right: Zionism “will not disappear without having left behind a successor.” But this successor may turn out to be the General Jewish Labour Union in Lithuania, Poland and Russia.


Translated from: “L. Trotsky: Collected Works”, volume four, Moscow-Leningrad, 1926.

First published in “Iskra”, no. 56, 1st January 1904.

Numbered footnotes are translated from the 1926 Collected Works.

1) Zionism – A nationalist movement of the Jewish bourgeoisie with the goal of creating an independent Jewish state in Palestine. The first congress of the Zionists, which unified all the previously disparate Palestinophile groups, opened on 29th August 1897 in Basle. For the first time, a programme of the Zionists was drawn up at this congress. Its basic tasks were defined as follows:

“Zionism strives to create for the Jewish people a haven in Palestine secured by law. In order to achieve this goal, congress recommends: 1) appropriate encouragement of the colonisation of Palestine by Jews – agriculturists, artisans and workers; 2) the cohering and unity of all Jews by means of general and local institutions based on legal foundations; 3) the strengthening of Jewish national feelings and popular self-consciousness; 4) preliminary steps to obtain the agreement of governments to the realisation of the tasks of Zionism.”

The second Basle congress took place in 1898. It adopted a resolution about organising a Jewish colonial bank which was to finance the mass resettlement of Jews in Palestine. The third Basle congress, held in August 1899, raised the question of securing the right to the colonisation of Palestine. The right to colonisation had to be obtained from the Turkish Sultan, as Palestine belonged to the Turkish Empire. The fourth and fifth congresses declared the necessity of developing and strengthening national feelings in the masses of the Jewish people, and placed cultural work among Jews in all states at the centre of Zionist activities. Until the fourth congress any kind of work among Jews in the diaspora was regarded as unworthy of a Zionist. Everything had to be subordinated to the single idea of Zion. At the sixth Basle congress (1903) the leader of Zionism, Herzl, despairing of the possibility of the colonisation of Palestine, proposed the replacement of Palestine by Uganda (in East Africa). This proposal encountered vigorous protests from the supporters of the Palestinian territory and split the congress into two camps.

The question of Uganda was remitted for consideration by a specially elected commission. At the seventh congress (1905) it came out against the plan to colonise Uganda. After a long struggle, the congress adopted a resolution on the necessity of strict adherence to the first Basle programme, which recognised Palestine as the only territory suitable for the creation of a Jewish state. The internal decomposition of Zionism, which was manifested so clearly at the sixth congress, has continued since then.

At one time Zionism was widespread in the Jewish masses in Russia, especially in the milieu of the petty bourgeoisie, traders, artisans, etc. The October Revolution resolved the national question at a stroke and thereby deprived Zionism of any influence in Russia.

A section of the Jewish bourgeoisie, having settled in Palestine, formed an “independent state” there, under the patronage of England.

2) Herzl, Theodor (1860-1904) – the recognised leader of Zionism. In his youth he engaged in literary activities. The Dreyfus affair and the growing antisemitic movement drew his attention to the Jewish question. In 1896 he published his book “The Jewish State”, in which he argued that the creation of an independent Jewish state in Palestine was the only way to establish normal conditions of life for the Jewish masses. Soon after the publication of this book Herzl made links with already existing Palestinophile student groups and in 1898 convened the first congress in Basle, which constituted the organisational beginnings of Zionism. From this time onwards Herzl conducted an energetic campaign for his Zionist ideas. He visited the leaders of the main European governments and conducted negotiations with them about the resettlement of Jews in Palestine. Herzl visited the Turkish Sultan several times, seeking concessions regarding the colonisation of Palestine. Having encountered failure in these negotiations, he renounced the idea of a Palestinian territory and attempted to replace Palestine with Uganda (in East Africa). But the project of colonising Uganda provoked bitter opposition from the Palestinophiles at the sixth Zionist congress. Towards the end of his life Herzl began to recognise the utopian nature of his idea of the mass resettlement of Jews and the artificial creation of a Jewish state. Under his leadership Zionism shifted the centre of gravity of its work to the development and strengthening of narrow-nationalist sentiments in the Jewish people.

3) Chamberlain, Joseph (1836-1914) – One of the most prominent representatives of English imperialism. A member of the radical party and one of its leaders right up to 1885. From 1880 to 1885 he was Minister for Trade in the Liberal ministry of Gladstone. When the Liberals split between supporters of imperialist policies and protectionism and supporters of free trade, Chamberlain supported the former. In 1885, following disagreements with Gladstone about the question of “Home Rule” (i.e. about granting Ireland its own parliament and a broad degree of local self-government), he quit the ministry and the radical party. Soon after this he became a leader of the liberal-unionist party (a nationalist party of big capital) as the mouthpiece of the politics of English imperialism. At the end of the 1890s Chamberlain was appointed Minister for the Colonies and remained in that post until 1905. This appointment signalled the entry of England onto the path of active imperialism. A rabid supporter of imperialist expansion and the first Colonial Minister of England after its final entry onto the path of imperialist politics, Chamberlain was accorded the well-deserved nickname of the father of English imperialism.

Edward VII – King of England, ascended to the throne in 1901, died in 1910.

4) “Die Welt” – Central press organ of the Zionists, published in German in Berlin.

5) V congress of the Bund – Took place in June 1903. Having decisively put an end to the most visible remnants of economism and terrorist-SRist deviations in the ranks of the Bund, the V congress had particularly heated discussions about questions of a national character. Demands for the complete autonomy of the Bund, as the sole representative of the Jewish proletariat, were predominant at the congress. The congress took a decision which, in view of the great amount of interest it has attracted, we reproduce in full:

“1.The position of the Bund in the party is defined by the following points:

2. The Bund is the social-democratic organisation of the Jewish proletariat, unrestricted in its activities by any regional borders, and joins the party as its sole representative.

3. The Bund elects its representation on the Central Committee, on the Committee Abroad, and at congresses of the party. The manner of representation must be based on the same principles for all sections of the party.

Note: Local and regional organisations are not recognised in this respect as separate parts of the party.

4. The general party programme is the programme of the Bund.

5. The Bund has its own congresses, for resolving all questions which particularly concern the Jewish proletariat, its own Central Committee and its own Committee Abroad.

6. The Bund enjoys freedom in dealing with affairs relating to its organisation.

7. The Bund has the right to unhindered publication, apart from literature in the Jewish language, and literature in other languages.

8. The congress of the party has the right to revoke all resolutions of congresses of the Bund.

9. In cases of necessity, the CC of the party has the right to engage with separate parts of the Bund, but only with the participation of the CC of the Bund.

10. All these points are regarded as fundamental and can be amended, supplemented or revoked only with the mutual agreement of the sections of the party.

Note: Local and regional organisations are not recognised in this respect as separate parts of the party.”

The demands of the Bund encountered a negative response at the II congress of the RSDLP. The Bund left the party and continued to exist separately from the RSDLP.

6) Polish Socialist Party (PPS) – Was established in 1892. Although at that time there already existed a mass workers movement in Poland, it mainly brought together groups of the intelligentsia and the petty bourgeoisie. The main aim and basic pivot of the programme of the PPS was the struggle for the national independence of Poland; the achievement of this independence was declared by the party to be the most immediate aim of the Polish workers movement. This social-patriotic slogan was resolutely challenged by Rosa Luxemburg, who argued that the independence of a territory is not a practically necessary condition of the success of the revolutionary struggle. In 1906 the left wing – “levitsa” – split from the PPS. In 1918, having fused with the Social Democratic Party of Poland, it formed the Polish Communist Party.

After the split the hard core of the PPS gradually degenerated into a chauvinist petty-bourgeois party. Today the PPS is the main prop of the bourgeois dictatorship in Poland and conducts a frenzied struggle against the Communist movement of the Polish proletariat.

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