In modern political discourse in America and much of the West, there is an unspoken assumption that Zionism and leftism are inherently at cross-purposes—that to be left-wing means to be anti-Zionist and hostile to Israel. However, this was not always the case: in the years up to and including the first several decades of Israel’s existence, not only were Zionist or pro-Israel leftists expected, but they exercised almost hegemonic control of the Israeli political arena through to the 1977 Knesset elections. What was this mysterious ideology that played such a formative role in Israel’s founding but is virtually extinct today?
In reality, this Zionism was deeply rooted in Marxist theory—a theory compounded by scores of socialist thinkers, including many Zionist titans, who foresaw that the social, political and economic upheavals of the industrial era would result in a revitalized anti-Semitism in Europe. As a result, the only way the Jewish people could take part in the upcoming revolution would be to truly become a nation in all senses of the word.
Arguably, the creator of Marxist Zionism was a German Jew by the name of Moshe Hess. Nicknamed “the communist rabbi,” Hess argued, beginning in his 1862 work, Rome and Jerusalem, that the Jews were not bound by a common religion but instead as members of a nation. A “Jew in the home, German in the street” mentality could not solve the Jewish question in Europe, as prominent Reform Jews had proclaimed. He argued that Jewish laws relating to harvest originated from a proto-socialist viewpoint, and contrasted Jewish collectivism with Christian and bourgeois individualism. Ultimately, Hess came to the conclusion that the solution was the creation of a Jewish socialist society in Palestine.
Hess’s writings were ignored during his lifetime but were adopted by a new generation of Marxist and Socialist Zionists. The ideology became extremely popular with the radical Jewish working classes, and eventually many Socialist Zionist organizations united to form the international Poale Zion (Workers of Zion) party. Ber Borochov, Poale Zion’s first leader, would become one of Marxist Zionism’s leading theorists. Among other ideas, he popularized the idea of distinct varieties or “flavors” of nationalism within an oppressed nation, and that one must distinguish between the conservative nationalism of reaction amongst the upper classes and the clergy from the radical nationalism of liberation amongst the lower middle class and proletariat. Zionism was a logical product of the joint economic and national insecurity of the latter group, as a result of an increasingly industrial and anti-Semitic Europe. Furthermore, a successful Zionist state could only be socialist—it would be a waste to replace the economic chains of European capitalists with Jewish ones. Most importantly, the upper classes, because of their more secure economic position, could not be relied upon to create this new Jewish society—the tendency towards assimilation would be too strong. Only the Jewish lower classes, along with their organizations and leaders, would have both the strength and impetus to construct a brand-new society.
While critical of more mainstream Zionists on the issue of nationalism, Borochov was essentially an orthodox Marxist. His emphasis was wholly materialistic, rather than spiritual, and he viewed nationalism as a product of economic conditions, rather than an inherently positive or negative development. Furthermore, he accepted Marx’s determinism and belief in dialectical materialism, or the idea that socialism was logically the next, unavoidable, and final step in the progress of human society.
In contrast, Nachman Syrkin, a leader of Poale Zion in America and another titan of Marxist Zionism, took a more unorthodox approach to socialism, and placed a heavier emphasis of the unique situation of the Jewish people. In particular, he attacked the liberal idea that Emancipation, or granting full rights to Jews in Europe would in fact solve the problem of anti-Semitism, a view adopted by many non-Zionist Marxists. He points out that Emancipation was not carried out because of a feeling of kinship between Jews and gentiles in Russia, France, Germany or the rest of Europe, but because of a general principle, widely but not deeply held by members of the liberal governing class. As a result, Jewish security rested in the hands of the liberal government which, if overthrown by an illiberal autocracy, would leave the Jews defenseless against a popular tide of hatred. Foreshadowing Nazi Germany, he writes that:
“[T]he 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.”
Syrkin’s solution was for the Jewish masses to unite with their proletarian brothers to simultaneously overthrow bourgeois liberal capitalism and achieve true emancipation (echoing Leon Pinsker’s earlier calls for auto-emancipation). Syrkin shared Borochov’s view that a Jewish state could only be socialist: capitalism could not provide the planning necessary to create a new society from scratch, and it would be inconceivable for the Jewish masses to bend under the yoke of capitalism in their own homeland.
Hess, Borochov, Syrkin, Berl Katznelson, and countless others brought into being the strongest largest and most influential strains of Zionism: Socialist Zionism and Marxist Zionism. This is the ideology that brought forth the kibbutzim, the famed collectivist communities where shared wealth, shared work, and shared lives were the norm, in agreement with socialist principles. At their peak, there were 270 kibbutzim, with almost 130,000 members. These kibbutzim were established primarily by two movements: the more moderate HaKibbutz HaMeuhad and the more radical Kibbutz Artzi. Another of Marxist Zionism’s offspring was the Histradut, Israel’s trade union federation, which at its height represented 75 percent of Israel’s labor force and held the second largest stake in the Israeli economy, after the government itself.
Perhaps the impact Marxist-Zionism had during Israel’s formative years can best be seen in the results of the first Israeli Knesset election. By far the largest faction in the Knesset were the 49 seats of David Ben-Gurion’s Mapai party, a social-democratic party allied with the Poale Zion movement. The second largest party was Meir Ya’ari’s Mapam, a radical socialist party which allied with the USSR politically and which descended from a splinter group from Poale Zion, named Poale Zion-Left, which supported the Bolshevik October Revolution. By contrast, the right-wing nationalist Herut party of Menachem Begin, and ancestor of the modern Likud party, received only 14 seats in total.
Perhaps nothing better embodies this visceral link between Zionism and Socialism than its legacy in the 2016 American presidential race. It has been confirmed that the kibbutz at which Democratic primary candidate, Vermont senator and long-time left-winger Bernie Sanders volunteered in his youth was Kibbutz Sha’ar Ha’Amakim, one of the most ideologically radical kibbutzim at the time. The kibbutz is affiliated with Hashomer Hatzair, the Socialist Zionist movement closely intertwined with Kibbutz Artzi and Mapam. It s a poignant reminder of Israel’s radical-left past, when Zionism did not have the same right-wing, jingoistic connotations it carries today.
Now why Zionism and socialism (and leftism more generally) grew apart, that is a discussion for another day.