Vladimir Medem (1879-1923) was the principal theorist of the Jewish Labor Bund in Russia and Poland and one of its best-known and most celebrated leaders. Born in Libau, Latvia, he was the son of a Jewish army medical officer who had converted to Lutheranism, and was baptized in the church.
As a child in Minsk, where his parents had moved, he was exposed to Jews in secondary school, which influenced him deeply. Enrolling for a year in Kiev University in 1897, he discovered the writings of socialist theorists Plekhanov and Lenin, and began a lifelong interest in Marxism. He joined the newly founded Russian Federated Social Democratic Workers Party (RSDWP), which at the time was a small confederation of clubs, mainly of students and intellectuals, with separate ethnic organizations in each of the countries under the Russian empire.
In 1899 Medem was expelled from university after participating in a student strike and was returned to Minsk, which was then the center of the newly organized Jewish Labor Bund, nominally the Jewish section of the RSDWP. His admiration for the Jewish masses, as he would later put it, drew him emotionally back to his Jewish roots. That personal evolution became a signature image and helped seal his wide popularity among Bund members and beyond. He became a member of the Bund’s Minsk committee and wrote for the party organ, Der Minsker Arbeter.
Imprisoned briefly for radical activity in the winter of 1900-01, Medem learned shortly after release that he was to be arrested again and sent to Siberia. He fled to Berne, Switzerland and became active in the Russian student circles. At the end of 1901 he was elected first secretary of the Bund organization abroad, and in 1903 he was one of the five delegates chosen to represent the Bund in August 1903 at the Second Party Congress of the RSDWP in London.
Prior to the London congress Medem attended the fifth party congress of the Bund, where he gave his first major public address, speaking out on the so-called national question, the place of separate ethnic groups in the post-national theories of socialism. He advocated what was known as neutralism, effectively a middle stance between nationalists who wanted the party to work actively for preservation of Jewish identity and assimilationists who favored the disappearance of all national groups, including Jews. Medem’s views made a deep impression.
Medem’s impact at the Bund congress in April helped to shape the Bund’s stance at the London congress in August. The Bund walked out of the congress hall on the first day, after other delegates voted to define the federated party’s ethnic sections on territorial rather than cultural or linguistic grounds, effectively denying the Bund the right to represent Jews within the federated structure. In fact, many of those delegates who voted against the Bund, including Leon Trotsky, were themselves Jews who feared being forced to resign as leaders of Russian, Ukrainian and other parties and join the Bund, where they would be alienated and unable to communicate in the Bund’s official language, Yiddish. The Bund delegates returned to the congress hall a day later, but in the interim, a vote on a minor organizational question led to a victory by a hard-line faction, led by Lenin, that controlled a minority of congress delegates overall but held a majority while the Bund was absent. Based on their majority vote, the Lenin faction took the name Bolsheviki, meaning “members of the majority,” which they kept thereafter.
In 1908, as tsarist repression increased, he again went into exile. He returned to Russia in 1913 but was quickly arrested and imprisoned, this time in Warsaw.
Two years later, in 1915, Medem was released after the German-led Central Powers conquered Poland. He remained in Warsaw, where the Bund organized as an independent, legal political party, and became its unofficial leader. Beginning in 1919, however, the Polish Bund became increasingly pro-Bolshevik under the influence of the communist victory in neighboring Russia. Medem, who had been fiercely anti-Bolshevik ever since the 1903 London congress, found himself increasingly isolated. In December 1920 he moved to New York, where he wrote for the Jewish Daily Forward and became a revered figure in Jewish workers’ circles. He died in January 1923.
As Roni Gechtman writes in the YIVO Encyclopedia (http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/printarticle.aspx?id=2118):
Medem’s cosmopolitan experience and outlook, together with his personal decision to join an ethnic-national (Jewish) party, contributed to his interest in the ‘national question’ and the set of problems arising from the coexistence of different national groups within one state. The most influential of Medem’s works was his 1904 pamphlet Di sotsyal-demokratye un di natsyonale frage (Social Democracy and the National Question), which earned him recognition as the Bundist authority on this issue. He sought to outline not just the Bundist view but also the foundations for a general theoretical analysis of the nation from a Marxist perspective. …
For Medem, the nation was not a defined body, ‘an independent thing’ or ‘a closed circle with fixed contents,’ as nationalists claimed, or the locus of ‘the national spirit.’ Rather, the nation was the cultural aspect that ‘colored’ other, more concrete bodies: states, classes, institutions, and the like. Hence the nation was nothing more than a particular cultural form whose contents were not particular but were shared by all peoples — thus the image of the national culture as a “color” with which similar contents are painted: ‘the body is the same, the external skin is different.’ National culture was the ‘typical form in which the general human content takes shape.’
Medem considered three possible solutions to the national question, two of which he dismissed out of hand: nationalism and assimilationism. His rejection of nationalism was absolute, and he saw little difference between the two forms that nationalism usually takes — the form of oppression and the form of a struggle for liberation. All nationalists aspired to the victory of their language and culture to increase the national bourgeoisie’s economic control; in Medem’s words, ‘this is the common characteristic of nationalism, at the basis of all its forms; it is common to Bismarck and Simon Dubnow, Rochefort, and Ahad Ha-Am.’ Medem’s choice of examples is meaningful: even the most moderate Jewish nationalists were in essence indistinguishable from the most fanatic, aggressive, and militaristic non-Jewish nationalists.
According to Medem, social democrats should neither ‘strive to preserve and reinforce the differences’ (nationalism) nor ‘regard diversity with disapproval’ (assimilationism). Medem adopted a neutral position regarding the assimilation of Jews (or any other national minority), a doctrine that became known as ‘neutralism’; yet despite Medem’s status as the main Bundist authority on the national question, neutralism was never officially approved as party policy, and indeed it was later rejected by many Bundists.
Medem’s position was that to preclude the oppression or forced assimilation of national minorities, it was not enough to grant equal civil rights to members of all nations. The state, in addition, must take an active role in protecting the minorities by granting them national-cultural autonomy. Non-territorial governing bodies would administer cultural matters (and only those matters) pertaining to the members of each nation. Thus the program of national-cultural autonomy was an attempt to create conditions for the peaceful and equal coexistence of different nations within one state. In opposition to the nation-state, Medem put forward a model of a ‘state of nationalities’ to ‘ensure that the different nations may live in peace with each another’ and in which ‘the stronger nation would not smother the weaker one.’
According to Medem, national oppression and restrictions on the use of the national language were particularly harmful to workers because they had fewer opportunities to learn a new language. The national language, the worker’s mother tongue, was the only means by which workers could have access to education and information. If the oppressive state limited them in that respect, then workers were effectively barred from cultural life. For that reason, only national-cultural autonomy could provide the conditions in which members of the minorities would be able to decide freely whether they wished to acculturate or keep their own culture. Even though at first Medem’s views were fiercely opposed by intransigent internationalists within the Bund, who predicted that the Jews’ future lay in assimilation, national-cultural autonomy was eventually adopted by the Bund as its official program.
By 1910 Medem was calling for even stronger protection of Jewish cultural rights. He called for the Bund to play an active role in the Jewish community organizations known as kehillah, urged active efforts to create Yiddish schools and advocated the right to rest on the Sabbath.