Nachman Syrkin:
The Jewish Problem and the Socialist Jewish State

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INTRODUCTION - Nachman Syrkin and Socialist Zionism

Nachman Syrkin - Biography

Nachman Syrkin was born in Belorussia in 1868. He attended high school in Minsk after his family had moved there, and joined the 'Hovevei Tziyon (lovers of Zion) in that city, but also was in contact with contact with Russian revolutionary circles. In 1888, he was arrested. He then fled to London and thence to  Berlin, where he studied psychology and philosophy.  In Berlin, Syrkin helped  found the Russian-Jewish Scientific Society, whose members included future Zionist leaders such as Shmaryahu Levin, Leo Motzkin and Chaim Weizmann. Syrkin tried a career as a writer, but returned to complete a Phd in Bern in 1903.

By 1888, Syrkin had conceived of his hallmark idea: the combination of non-Marxist socialism and Jewish nationalism. In 1897, he was a leader of the Socialist Zionists at the First Zionist Congress. In 1898, Syrkin published the article excerpted below, The Jewish Question and the Socialist Jewish State, which appeared in an Austrian Socialist monthly.

Nachman (Nachman) Syrkin: A Founder of Socialist Zionism
Nachman Syrkin (1868-1924 )
A founder of Socialist Zionism

Syrkin was known for his outspoken views. His frequent attacks on different ideologies led to loud protests at Zionist congresses. He criticized the "bourgeois and clerical" elements in the Zionist Organization. He  attacked Achad Ha'am's Cultural Zionism, for disregarding realities such as antisemitism, and took issue with Borochovian Marxist Zionism.  Syrkin was exiled from Germany in 1904, spent some time in Paris and, after the 1905 revolution, went to Russia where he continued to work with Zionist-Socialists. He emigrated to the United States in 1907. He joined the Poalei Tziyon and  remained the leader of the American Poalei Zion until his death. 

During World War I, Syrkin helped organize a Jewish Congress in America and supported the creation of a Jewish Legion that would fight on the side of the Allies to liberate Palestine. In 1919, Syrkin was a delegate at the Versailles Peace Conference.

Syrkin intended to settle in Palestine, but died suddenly of a heart attack in 1924. In 1951, his remains were reinterred at Kibbutz Kinneret with the other founders of Labor Zionism.



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The Jewish Problem and the Socialist Jewish State
 by Nachman Syrkin (1898)


The proclamation of human rights emancipated the Jews, with striking suddenness, from their medieval servitude and granted them civil and political equality with scarcely any exertion on their part. Supported by no real power of their own and not even organized into an effective force in order to foster the emancipation, the Jews were accidentally liberated by the triumph of the principle of equality. The ghetto walls were broken, releasing the Jew into the world as a factor in civil life. The millennial Jewish condition of servitude came to an end; the wound that had been festering within Jewry since the fall of Jerusalem began to heal with the fall of the Bastille.

Despite the germ of progress contained within bourgeois society, no form of social organization ever came into the world vitiated by greater weakness. 'Freedom' was inscribed on the bourgeois ensign, but no society was ever marked by so much dependence of man on man. 'Equality' was destroyed to an unparalleled degree, by differences in wealth and property, while 'fraternity', in bourgeois society, became an ironic joke. In its struggles, the bourgeoisie unfurled the banner of 'humanity', but never was individualism so much an end in itself as it is today. The contradictions of the bourgeois society find their expression in the individualistic character of that society; these contradictions will lead to its breakdown. The very freedom and equality which the bourgeois society once proclaimed, but which it now denies, marshal the forces that spell its doom.

Bourgeois society, whose sole aim is the accumulation of material wealth through the medium of competition, brought about a new appraisal of Jewish values. The traditions and aspirations of the ghetto clashed with the new order of society and had to be thrust aside. While ghetto Jewry was a homogeneous, though isolated, nation, emancipated Jewry soon disposed of its nationalism in order to create for itself the theoretical basis for emancipation. This same Jewry, which but recently prayed thrice daily for its return to Jerusalem, became intoxicated with patriotic sentiments for the land in which it lived.

It appeared as though bourgeois freedom and Jewish assimilation had finally solved the old Jewish problem. But, in reality, the splendor of the solution lasted only as long as the reign of liberalism. The more the bourgeoisie, once it became the ruling class, betrayed the principles of liberalism, the shakier the ideological underpinnings of the emancipation became. The struggle for economic power, both of individual and class, became the chief characteristic of modern bourgeois society, once it had discarded the higher principles of its revolutionary era as unnecessary burdens. The emancipation of the Jew and his admission to all aspects of active citizenship could not be harmonized with the principle of egotism which is basic to bourgeois society. Jewish emancipation, therefore, began to evaporate together with the remains of liberalism. But it emphasized again that the emancipation of the Jews was, from the beginning, a result of logical conformity to the implication of a principle, rather than a real need. There is further proof of this in the fact that wherever the emancipation has depended on the state or society, it has not come to pass.

Jews and Revolutionary Socialism

The classes fighting each other will unite in their common attack on the Jew. The dominant elements of capitalist society, i.e., the men of great wealth, the monarchy, the church, and the state, seek to use the religious and racial struggle as a substitute for the class struggle.

Anti-Semitism, therefore, has the tendency to permeate all of society and to undermine the existence of the Jewish people. It is a result of the unequal distribution of power in society. As long as society is based on might, and as long as the Jew is weak, anti-Semitism will exist.

A classless society and national sovereignty are the only means of solving the Jewish problem completely. The social revolution and cessation of the class struggle will also normalize the relationship of the Jew and his environment. The Jew must, therefore, join the ranks of the proletariat, the only element which is striving to make an end of the class struggle and to redistribute power on the basis of justice. The Jew has been the torchbearer of liberalism which emancipated him as part of its war against the old society; today, after the liberal bourgeoisie has betrayed its principles and has compromised with those classes whose power rests on force, the Jew must become the vanguard of socialism.

Jews began to join the revolutionary socialism concurrently with the birth of modern anti-Semitism. The Jewish socialists of western Europe, who sprang from the assimilationist Jewish bourgeoisie, unfortunately inherited the tradition of assimilation and displayed the same lack of self-respect and spiritual poverty, except that the moral degeneration of the socialist brand of assimilation was more sharply apparent. To the Jewish socialists, socialism meant, first of all, the abandonment of Jewishness, just as the liberalism of the Jewish bourgeoisie led to assimilation. And yet, this tendency to deny their Jewishness was unnecessary, being prompted by neither socialism nor liberalism. It was a product of the general degeneration and demoralization of the Jews; Judaism was dropped because it conferred no benefits in the new world of free competition.

Impelled by their Judaism toward the path of revolution, the socialists committed the great intellectual and moral sin of not safeguarding the purity of their revolt. Instead of emphasizing the basic note of their revolutionary opposition to a society based on class divisions, the fact that they themselves belonged to the most oppressed people in the world -instead of first crying out as Jews and then raising their protest to the level of the universal -with peculiar Jewish logic, they did the contrary. They robbed the protest of its Jewish character, suppressed all reference to their Jewish origin, and thus became merely another variety of Jewish assimilationist.

The assimilated bourgeoisie turned away from Judaism because the Jewish people were weak and there was no economic advantage in being a Jew; Jewish socialists turned away from Judaism, because, for them socialism was not the result of a moral protest against the world of the oppressors, but a last haven for the Jew whom liberalism had betrayed. Jewish assimilation clothed itself in the mantle of vicarious nationalism, of patriotic fervour for those lands in which Jews resided; Jewish socialism used internationalism as a cloak to cover its nakedness. This relegation and honorless attitude toward its Jewish origin was no more justified by the truth of internationalism than by the illusion of foreign nationalism.

Nationalism and Socialism

Internationalism, not only in its attenuated modern sense but also in a cosmopolitan spirit of the Enlightenment, is undoubtedly the ideal toward which history is striving. The blending of all the nations into a higher unity, the creation of one humanity with a common language, territory, and fate -the dream which the greatest spirits of all eras have shared -this conception is undoubtedly the great victory of the human mind over the accidental and the unknown in history. Nationalism is always an accidental creation; it is not a phenomenon of historic reason. Nationalism is only a category of history, but it is not an absolute. National differences arose in certain states of history and they will disappear at a higher stage. The characteristic symbol of nationality is neither language, religion, nor state, but the consciousness of historic unity.

Socialism, which proclaimed the holiness of freedom and the right to self-determination, is both in its nature and in its practice the absolute opposite of pseudo-internationalism. Socialism is the opponent of all those conspiring to suppress or destroy the national character of a people. The socialist movement staunchly supports all attempts of suppressed peoples to free themselves. Each national emancipation movement finds its moral support in socialist ethics and in socialist concepts of freedom.

The socialists of most nations have already solved the problem of the relationship between nationalism and their socialism. There are no socialist leaders, in any national group, who deny their own nationality and preach assimilation to a dominant nationality. Only the bourgeoisie of oppressed nations deny their own nation and abandon it, unhesitatingly committing treason when it behooves them to do so for a profit. Thus, the Polish bourgeoisie betrayed Poland and Polish nationalism and was the first to join hands with the enemy. Likewise, the Jewish bourgeoisie adopted assimilation and dropped the ballast of its Jewishness so that it might swim more freely in the waters of the stock exchange.

The bearers of the idea of national emancipation among all oppressed nations are the intelligentsia, the socialists, and the proletariat. Only in the case of the Jews, among whom everything is topsy-turvy, have the socialists inherited assimilation from the bourgeoisie and made it their spiritual heritage. In such a policy we can see only a lack of seriousness in their socialism and in their devotion to liberty.

In Eastern Europe, where the mass of Jewish proletariat lives in great need, economic development will not quickly change its depressed position in society. The unemployed Jewish proletariat must naturally, both as an oppressed class and as Jews, accept socialism, but socialism, as a practical movement, bears no reference to the peculiar conditions under which they, as Jews, are living.

Socialism and the Jews

Socialist principles and theory are opposed to any denial of Jewish rights; yet it often happens that, for tactical and opportunistic reasons, socialist parties adopt passive attitudes or even abet attacks on the Jews. No matter how diametrically opposed the Social Democratic Party of. Germany is to anti-Semitism in principle, there were numerous political occasions when the party rejoiced in anti-Semitism, or, at least, failed to attack it. Recent political history offers a number of examples to illustrate the character of the socialist parties. A case in point is the attitude of the French socialists toward the 'Dreyfus Affair'. Just as the opportunism of the German Social-Democratic Party sometimes led it in a direction opposite to the basic principles of socialism, so, too, because of opportunism, the French Party excluded the Jews from its devotion to absolute justice.

If the socialist parties of democratic lands, despite their concern for all the oppressed, are indifferent to Jewish suffering, socialism is of even lesser comfort in those lands where the Jews have not yet been emancipated. In Russia, where Jews are not emancipated, their condition will not be radically altered through an overthrow of the present political regime. No matter what new class gains control of the government, it will not be deeply interested in the emancipation of the Hews. That emancipation will come to the Jews of Russia as 'manna', or as a result of idealism and humanitarian principles, is inconceivable. Russian Jewry will attain its emancipation only in the future socialist state. Till then they will have to remain in their present state of misery. Nonetheless, this realization should not restrain them from joining the most radical parties of the opposition, in order to express their healthy instinct of protest.

With respect to the Jews, we are driven to the sad and unusual conclusion that unlike all the other oppressed, he has no real, immediate weapon with which to win an easing of his lot. His only alternative, as it was centuries ago, is emigration to other countries. In western countries, the Jews seek a temporary solution in social isolation; in Eastern Europe, in emigration to free lands.

How shall the Jew react to his unique tragedy?

In the Middle Ages the Jews accepted their fate with resignation and as individuals fought the world for their personal survival. But modern Jewry adopted the rational means of migration. To pave a united road for all the Jews who are being forced to migrate- for the poor driven by need for refined Jews stung by insults, and for romantic old religious Jews who bewail the deterioration of the people and the destruction of the Temple; to give a rational purpose to all those who feel the pain of the Exile; and to raise their individual protest to the level of a general moral resistance aimed at the rebuilding of Jewish life -that is the purpose of Zionism, a movement inevitably born of Jewish sufferings which has encompassed all segments of Jewry.

Zionism is a real phenomenon of Jewish life. It has its roots in the economic and social positions of the Jews, in their moral protest, in the idealistic striving to give a better content to their miserable life. It is borne by the active, creative forces of Jewish life. Only cowards and spiritual degenerates will term Zionism a utopian movement.

Zionism is a creative work of the Jews, and it, therefore, stands not in contradiction to the class struggle but beyond it. Zionism can be accepted by each and every class of Jews.

The Jewish proletariat, the poor Jewish masses, the intelligentsia, and the middle class, can justifiably oppose a Jewish state which may be based on the principles of capitalism. True, the Jewish state, regardless, can greatly eradicate the Jewish problems, but the modern world is so permeated by social and economic ideals that masses will not accept, and rightly so, a capitalistic Jewish state.

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