Chaim Zhitlowsky (Yiddish: חײם זשיטלאָװסקי; Russian: Хаим Осипович Житловский) (April 19, 1865 – May 6, 1943) was a Jewish socialist, philosopher, social and political thinker, writer and literary critic born in the Russian Empire (present-day Vitsebsk Voblast, Belarus).
He was a founding member of the Union of Russian Socialist Revolutionaries, a founding member and theoretician of the Socialist Revolutionary Party in Russia, an ideologist of Yiddishism and Jewish Diaspora nationalism, which influenced the Jewish territorialist and nationalist movements. He was an advocate of Yiddish language and culture. Chaim Zhitlowsky was also a vice-president of the important conference on the Yiddish language held in Chernivtsi, 1908.
Issued by the Zhitlowsky Anniversary Committee in 1935:
Chaim Zhitlowsky was born in 1865, in the small town of Ushachy, in the province of Vitebsk, Russia. When he was five years old, his parents moved to Vitebsk, the capital of the province.
On his mother’s side he was descended from artisans and merchants, on his father’s—from an aristocratic and well-educated family. His father, Joseph, studied in the famous Yeshiva of Volozhin, to be a rabbi, but preferred to become a merchant. Though an ardent Chassid of the Lubavich sect he was well versed in “Haskola” (enlightenment) literature, and often recited satiric “Haskola” tales and poems in Yiddish and Hebrew at family gatherings.
Fate was kind to Joseph and his business prospered. He moved to a richer, more exclusive section of the city. He kept an open house. A tutor of the Russian language was engaged for Chaim, but he continued his elementary religious studies at the kheyder. Soon Chaim became friendly with high school students of his neighborhood. He began to read Russian literature. He made his first literary attempt, turning the Yiddish version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin into Hebrew.
On his thirteenth birthday (his Bar-Mitzvah) Chaim made the acquaintance of Shloyme Rappaport, who was later to become S. Ansky, the famous author of The Dybuk. A warm lifelong friendship developed between Zhitlowsky and Ansky, who had a weakness in common-writing. For a short time they issued a hand-written holographic magazine called Vitebsk Bells.
On entering the third grade of the Russian Gymnasium in 1879, Zhitlowsky came into contact with Revolutionary circles, and, for the time being was estranged from Yiddish and other matters of Jewish interest as a result. He was sobered, however, by the pogroms of the early 1880s, and his naive cosmopolitanism was quickly dissipated. He left the Gymnasium, went to Tula in 1881 and there was engaged in spreading Socialist Revolutionary propaganda. Shocked by the view of some members of that party, that pogroms were a step toward the liberation of the Russian people, he left the party. When he returned to Vitebsk he was caught in the current of the then rising Palestine movement. He was inspired by the vision of the Jewish colonies and a Jewish peasantry, but the religious character of that Palestinism did not appeal to him. He sought to publish a magazine to propagandize “his idea”—a synthesis of Jewish nationalism and socialism. At first his father was willing to finance this enterprise, but was talked out of it by an ardent Palestinian friend.
In 1885 Zhitlowsky tried to found a Jewish section of the illegal Narodnya Volya party, but the Jews in the central committee of the Narodnya Volya who believed in cosmopolitanism and assimilation defeated the Zhitlowsky project. This was a severe blow for the young Jewish revolutionary. His grandfather consoled him, pointing out the revolutionary character of the prophets, and of the great Jewish intellects of the later times. This quickened Zhitlowsky’s interest in Jewish history. At the St. Petersburg Imperial Library he found books he so badly needed, and soon he established contact with a St. Petersburg group of the Narodnaya Volya.
His first work, a treatise in Russian entitled Thought of the Historical Fate of the Jewish People was published in Moscow in 1887 when he was only twenty-two. (Shortly before that he had been banished by the police from St. Petersburg). The liberal Russian press enthusiastically greeted and responded warmly to his ideas, but it met with scant favor among Jewish critics, because it contained no solution of the problems it treated. Several suspected him of being a Christian missionary.
Zhitlowsky returned to Vitebsk for a short time, from there he went to Galicia where it was much easier to preach Socialist doctrines among the Jewish masses. He became acquainted with a group of Jewish revolutionists from Zurich, who were engaged in disseminating radical literature in Yiddish.
He went to Berlin and resumed his study of Jewish history, Marxism and philosophy. He was expelled from Germany, under the anti-Socialist law, and went to Zurich. He immediately became active, founding the non-partisan “Verein fur Wissentschaft und Leben des Judischen Volkes,” for the purpose of inculcating Nationalism and Socialism among the Jewish masses. With youthful fervor he engaged in the debates between the orthodox and the adherents of the Narodnaya Volya. The latter evolved into the Social Revolutionary Party.
He went to Berne to study. Here, too, he founded an organization similar to the one in Zurich. When famine broke out in Russia in 1891, he and Charles Rappaport founded a non-partisan organization to help the afflicted. The work was doomed to failure from the start. The representatives of the various political groups could not forget their differences. The work ended, even before it had begun.
Though engrossed as ever in social and political activity, he found time to prepare his Ph.D. thesis, and to continue his studies in Marxism. His debut in Jewish literature took place in 1891.
The London newspaper Freie Welt published his translation of two revolutionary poems. In 1892 The London Fund for Revolutionary Publication printed his Russian tractate A Jew to Jews, under the pseudonym of I. Khisin. In his first Socialist pamphlet on a Jewish theme, the author demanded national as well as civil equality for Jews. He was also active in an organization which combated the anti-Jewish—”Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.”
Toward the latter part of 1893, Dr. Zhitlowsky, aided by Sh. Rappaport, M. Rosenbaum and several other Russian radicals, founded the “Federation of Socialist Revolutionaries” from which later developed the great Socialist Revolutionary Party. The group combated dogmatic Marxism. The newspaper The Russian Worker, appearing under the editorship of Zhitlowsky and Rappaport, busied itself with spreading propaganda among the masses. The Verband published in 1898 Zhitlowsky’s theoretical work, Socialism and the Fight for Political Freedom. It was written under the pen name Gregorovich. In this work, he tried to synthesize the three principal currents of the Russian revolutionary movement. From time to time, he contributed to several well-known Russian magazines, such as Russkoye Bogastvo; articles on Marxism and philosophy in the Jewish—Russian Voskhod; and contributed also to Sozialistische Monatshefte and Deutsche Worte.
In 1896 he organized the Group of Jewish Socialists Abroad. Their purpose was to prepare revolutionary propaganda literature in Yiddish, with the Communist Manifesto as a beginning. For this revolutionary library, Dr. Zhitlowsky wrote an introduction entitled Yiddish—Why? The Bund which published the booklet thought that Dr. Zhitlowsky’s introduction was not sufficiently revolutionary and too nationalistic, because the author expressed the belief that the rebirth of the Yiddish language and literature would lead to the national and social awakening of the Jewish people.
When the First Zionist Congress convened at Basle, Dr. Zhitlowsky attended it. He was against founding a Zionist party. He believed in the necessity for a League for Jewish Colonization, a league that would appeal to all those opposed to Herzel’s political Zionism. A day after the Congress, Dr. Zhitlowsky addressed the delegates and guests on Yiddish and the purposes of the Yiddish publishing house Zeit Geist, which had been founded by a group of Jewish intellectuals and revolutionaries. In this speech were first laid the foundations of Yiddishism, which subsequently became deeply rooted in Eastern Europe and America. He came into close relations with the Bund which published his pamphlet Zionism or Socialism? In 1898. In 1900 Dr. Zhitlowsky and Dr. John Edelheim founded the Deutscher Academischer Soziale Wissenschafte. They also took over the magazine Sozialistische Monatshefte.
He toured important European centers, making connections with revolutionary leaders of England, France, and Germany. The Deutscher Academischer Varlag existed several years. It was often attacked by orthodox Marxists because of the “revisionist” works published by him.
The Kishineff pogrom of 1903 coupled with personal difficulties profoundly depressed Dr. Zhitlowsky. He soon rallied, however, and turned toward the territorialistic movement. He conceived the idea of a Jewish Sejm (parliament). At his initiative a group of radical nationalists and Zionists organized the Sejmist party. In 1904, Dr. Zhitlowsky served as delegate at the International Socialist Congress in Amsterdam, and his fight that the Socialist Revolutionary Party should have a representative in the International Socialist Bureau ended victoriously.
When the first Yiddish daily in Russia, the St. Petersburg Frajnd, was founded, Dr. Zhitlowsky, under the penname N. Gaydaroff, contributed to it a series of articles entitled The Jewish People and the Yiddish Language, a theme which he often treated in later years.
In 1904 Dr. Zhitlowsky and “Babushka” (Granny) Breshkovskaya were sent by the Socialist Revolutionary Party to America to collect funds for the party and carry on a propaganda of its ideas.
With the Party’s permission he gave lectures on various Jewish matters during his stay in America. At that time the Jewish radical intelligentsia in America was under the influence of naive Socialist cosmopolitanism, which expressed itself in scorn for Jewish national problems, for the Yiddish language and culture. When Dr. Zhitlowsky in a series of lectures pointed out that there was no contradiction between progressive nationalism and the Socialist ideal, he encountered strong opposition. Very soon, however, many of his erstwhile opponents turned into his most ardent partisans.
After a two-year sojourn in America, he returned to Europe. He spent some time in Galicia and then he took himself to Russia, where his native province, Vitebsk, nominated him for Duma elections. The government refused to allow him to take his seat when elected. The reversal of this decision by the Senate came too late, for the Tsar had dispersed the Duma.
Dr. Zhitlowsky spent 1907 in Finland. With the aid of Gregory Gershuni, he engaged in a strong Socialist Revolutionary propaganda. He called a congress of Socialist factions which leaned more closely to the Socialist Revolutionary ideology. This congress adopted several of his resolutions which increased the influence of the Sejmists (Parliamentarians) The S. R. and the Sejmists sent him as their delegate to the International Socialist Congress at Stuttgart that year. Here he fought for the rights of these two parties in the International Socialist Bureau.
In 1908 he was sent to America by the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Sejmists. With the help of the following which he had attracted among the radical Jewish intellectuals during his previous visit, Dr. Zhitlowsky founded a publishing house which issued the monthly, Dos Naye Leben. Under the editorship of Dr. Zhitlowsky, it exercised great influence on Yiddish culture, literature, the development of free socialist thought,—an influence felt to this day. Dos Naye Leben became the spiritual home of many Jewish publicists and scientists, and the organ of modern Yiddish literature.
That very year, after a brief stay in America, Dr. Zhitlowsky returned to Europe, where he participated in a number of important conferences. That trip to Europe, is connected with a very important date in the history of the Yiddish language. The Yiddish Language Conference was held in Chernovitz in 1908. Under the leadership of its originators, Dr. Zhitlowsky, J. L. Perez and Nathan Birnbaum, the Conference for the first time in history declared Yiddish to be “a national language of the Jewish people.”
In 1909 Dr. Zhitlowsky raised (in his magazine Dos Naye Leben) the question of founding Yiddish secular schools in America.
In 1910 at the Convention of the Poale Zion Party in Montreal, Canada, that matter was placed by him on the order of the day, and there and then the inauguration of this type of school was proclaimed. The first Folkshul in New York City was opened on December 10, 1910 at 143 Madison St., and Dr. Zhitlowsky took an active part in the growth of this school.
His influence was also very considerable in the creation, some years later, of the Jewish secular schools of the Workmen’s Circle.
In 1912, the thousands of followers of Dr. Zhitlowsky attracted by his writings and lectures, celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of his literary activity. Four volumes of his collected works, shortly followed by two others, were published in connection with this anniversary.
In 1913 when Dos Naye Leben was discontinued, Dr. Zhitlowsky made a lecture tour of Jewish student colonies of the important academic centers in France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. He also visited Palestine in order to study the possibilities of widespread Jewish colonization there. He returned to America at the outbreak of the World War. Until then he had been a contributor to the Warheit, edited by L. A. Miller. He now joined the staff of the newly-organized Day. He advocated America’s neutrality, and battled against the pro-German feelings of the man in the street and of the Yiddish press.
Dr. Zhitlowsky also joined the movement for a Jewish congress and when it was convened he played an important part in its deliberations. At the same time, he continued his tracts on philosophy and sociology in the Yiddish magazine Zukunft. In 1920 appeared Die Zeit, a Poale-Zion daily, Dr. Zhitlowsky who had joined that party a few years before, became one of the most important contributors of that paper. Its publication ceased in 1921, and since then Dr. Zhitiowsky has been a steady contributor of the Day.
In 1922, Dr. Zhitlowsky and Sh. Niger renewed the publication of Das Naye Leben. Its point of view remained unaltered. In 1923, when the magazine was discontinued, Dr. Zhitlowsky returned to Europe in order to complete his most important work, The Spiritual Struggle of the Jewish People for Freedom. He visited Palestine and toured the Jewish centers in Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, between 1924 and 1925. Everywhere he was received with the greatest enthusiasm and admiration.
On November 28, 1925, Dr. Zhitlowsky’s sixtieth birthday was celebrated at the Manhattan Opera House in New York. Similar celebrations were held in other American and European cities visited by Dr. Zhitlowsky. A Zhitlowsky Memorial Volume was published in Berlin. It contained articles and reminiscences of his intimate friends and disciples. At Dr. Zhitlowsky’s suggestion, the proceeds from the book were turned over to the Yiddish Scientific Institute of Vilno, which Professor Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, as well as Dr. Zhitlowsky, are members of its Honorary Board of Directors.
Through the initiative of Dr. Zhitlowsky, and his lifelong friend, Dr. S. Ellsberg, the Yiddish Culture Society was founded in September 1929. The purpose of the organization is to unite all adherents of Yiddish to enable them to work in common for the development of Yiddish, the Yiddish school and Yiddish culture in general. He was also one of the editors of the weekly Yiddish, issued by the Yiddish Culture Society.
When the Jewish-American Congress decided to resume activity on a democratic basis, Dr. Zhitlowsky at once engaged in its labors. He is one of the leaders of the Worker’s Bloc, and favors the calling of a Jewish World Congress.
On the eve of his seventieth birthday, he was no less active as a writer and leader than in former years. Other writings of Dr. Zhitlowsky include: Philosophy (published in 1910), the first Yiddish book to deal with the development of philosophic thought; a Yiddish translation of Nietsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra; an essay on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (published in Warsaw in 1930); Two Lectures on Science, Philosophy and Religion (published in 1931). The committee sponsoring the celebration of Dr. Zhitlowsky’s seventieth birthday plans to publish his collected works and memoirs.
During his literary career, Dr. Zhitlowsky has contributed to the most important Yiddish newspapers and magazines in America and Europe, and helped to create a style for Yiddish publicistic and scientific writing.
In his monograph, Dr. Zhitlowsky; His Life and Work, Sh. Niger made the following summary of Dr. Zhitlowsky’s achievements:
In the world of universal ideas:
- Fought against dogmatism in philosophy in general, and in the philosophy of Dialectic Materialism, in particular.
- Strove to unite all elements of labor, factory workers, peasants, intellectual workers—in the struggle for socialism.
- Fought for the principles of autonomy and federalism as against centralization in the State.
- Theoretic and practical propaganda of Socialist Revolutionary ideas.
In the Jewish world:
- Fought for the secularization and separation of nationality from religion.
- Fought for progressive national culture, against assimilation and narrow nationalism.
- Theoretic proof of Galuth-nationalism.
- Synthesis of nationalism arid socialism, of Galuth-nationalism and territorialism.
- Influenced the programs of the Jewish nationalist parties.
- Interested radical Jewish intelligentsia in Yiddish cultural life and work.
- Helped to clarify and crystallize theYiddish radical movement in America.
- Enriched Yiddish language and oratory. Propagated the idea of the new secular Yiddish school.
- Pioneer work in the field of scientific and philosophical literature in Yiddish.
This is a short summary of over a half of century of scientific, literary, journalistic work, and activity as a lecturer and publisher, all in the spirit of Socialism and progressive nationalism among the Jewish masses in America and abroad.
In Yidn un Yiddishkayt (Jews and Jewishness, 1924), he sought to define the secular essence of Yiddishkayt, this time by calling forth the notions of racial contemporary theories.
- Gedanken über die geschichtlichen Schicksale der Juden, 1887 (in Russian)
- Der Traum fun a Lediggeher, London 1891
- Sozialismus und Kämpfe für politische Freiheit, 1898
- Das jüdische Volk und die jüdische Sprache, 1903
- Der Sozialismus und die nationale Frage, 1907 (in Yiddish)
- Die Philosophie, was sie ist und wie sie sich entwickelt hat, 2 vols. New York 1910, in Yiddish, 2. Aufl. 1920