Title page of Fun mayn leben (My Life), by Vladimir Medem (New York: Vladimir Medem Committee, 1923). (YIVO)

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Medem, Vladimir Davidovich

(1879–1923), political leader; Marxist theorist; Bundist. Vladimir Davidovich Medem was the main theorist of the Jewish Labor Bund, in Russia and in the Bund’s early years in Poland, and arguably the party’s most famous and celebrated leader. Born in Libau (Liepāja, Latvia; then part of tsarist Russia), he spent most of his childhood and youth in Minsk. Medem’s parents had converted to the Lutheran Church, and his father, David Medem (1836–1893), was one of the first graduates of Jewish origin of the Russian Military Academy of Medicine. The young Medem grew up as a Christian surrounded by Christian people. Despite his later prominence in Jewish politics, as an adult Medem never found it necessary to convert to Judaism, as Jewish culture, not religion, was at the basis of his choice to join the Jewish nation.

From Vladimir Davidovich Medem in Warsaw (?) to David Eynhorn in Warsaw (?), 18 June 1918. Medem wants to clarify what Eynhorn meant when he said he would like to serve as the editor of the Bund's literary department: does this mean perhaps only that he does not want his own work to be edited by someone else? Or something more? In any case, the Bund does not have the resources to launch a "thick" literary journal of "the Russian type." Medem comments on an article about the German poet Richard Dehmel that Eynhorn has sent, complaining that it is too long for publication. Dehmel, Medem notes, was the "love" of his youth. He takes issue with some of Eynhorn's translation of Dehmel's poems into Yiddish. Also, there is something else he has wanted to raise with Eynhorn for a long time: the way he "Germanizes" the Yiddish language. Eynhorn, he claims, uses the German word Stunde for “hour” when there is a perfectly good Yiddish word, sho. And there are many other examples of German words Eynhorn uses instead of Yiddish words of Hebrew derivation. Yiddish. RG 277, David Einhorn Papers, F26. (YIVO)

During his first year as a university student in Kiev (1897–1898), Medem became interested in radical politics, reading Karl Marx and joining the newly founded Russian Social Democratic Workers Party (RSDWP). Back in Minsk, he was exposed to Jewish culture and life and developed, as he stated in his memoirs, “a warm feeling for Jewishness” and a profound sympathy for the suffering of Jewish workers. He became active in the Bund, at the time the Jewish section of the RSDWP. As a result of his revolutionary activities, Medem was imprisoned in the winter of 1900–1901. Having been informed, shortly after his release, that he was in danger of being arrested again and deported to Siberia, Medem fled Russia and lived in exile in Bern until the 1905 Revolution. There he continued his studies and political activities in the context of the Bund and the RSDWP.

Medem also lived in exile in 1908–1913, during the repressive reaction that followed the revolution. Only five days after his return to Russia in June 1913, he was arrested and sent to jail, this time in Warsaw. He remained a political prisoner until August 1915, when Poland was conquered by the Central Powers. In the following years, Medem was the unofficial leader of the Polish Bund, which became a separate party after Poland’s independence in November 1918.

Medem’s first appearance in a major political gathering was at the Bund’s Fifth Congress in June 1903. His proposals and interventions shaped the debate on the national question at that congress and in the following years. The 23-year-old Medem caused such an impression that he was nominated as one of five Bundist representatives to the RSDWP’s Second Congress (Brussels and London, 30 July–10 August 1903). After this heated congress, which resulted in the break between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, the Bund left the RSDWP.

Throughout his political life, Medem maintained a critical attitude toward Bolshevism, which Lenin reciprocated with frequent vitriolic attacks against the Bund and against Medem himself. Medem’s disapproval of communism increased after the October 1917 Revolution, which he deemed adventurist and authoritarian. He repeatedly criticized the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and Red Terror, which, in his view, directly contradicted the fundamentals of socialism as the political regime that would genuinely give power to the masses. Medem grew increasingly disenchanted with his own party when in the early 1920s the Bund made great efforts to join the Communist International (Comintern). He left Warsaw in December 1920, lived and worked in New York for several years, and died there on 9 January 1923. Although during his lifetime Medem was never the Bund’s official leader, after his death he became, in the words of his tombstone epitaph in New York, the “legende [legend] of the Jewish labor movement.”

Medem’s cosmopolitan experience and outlook, together with his personal decision to join a 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 social democratic (i.e., Marxist) perspective. His proposals echoed those advanced by the Austro-Marxist theorist Karl Renner, as well as other Bundist leaders (such as John Mill and Mark Liber). Medem’s pamphlet preceded Otto Bauer’s Die Nationalitätenfrage und die Sozialdemokratie (The Nationality Question and Social Democracy; 1907), whose analysis and conclusions were very similar, with the important exception that Bauer explicitly excluded European Jews from the status of nation.

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 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. Nonterritorial 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.”

Bundist leaders at a Poland-wide gathering, Warsaw, 1928; (left to right) Yisroel Lichtenstein, Yitskhok Rafes, Henryk Erlich, Yekusiel Portnoy, and Bella Shapiro. At left is a portrait of Bundist leader Vladimir Medem, who died in 1923; at upper right, a portrait of Bundist leader Bronisław Grosser (1883–1912). The Yiddish banner reads: “Bund in Poland. Proletarians from all lands unite!” Photograph by Ch. Bojm. (YIVO)

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.

Suggested Reading

Jonathan Frankel, Prophecy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism and the Russian Jews, 1862–1917 (Cambridge, 1981); Roni Gechtman, “The Austro-Marxists, the Jewish Labor Bund, and the Theoretical and Programmatic Foundations of National-Cultural Autonomy,” Jahrbuch des Simon-Dubnow-Instituts / Simon Dubnow Institute Yearbook 4 (2005): 17–49; Roni Gechtman, “National-Cultural Autonomy and ‘Neutralism’: Vladimir Medem’s Marxist Analysis of the National Question, 1903–1920,” Socialist Studies 3.1 (Spring 2007): 69–92: Jacob Sholem Hertz, Gregor Aronson, Sophie Dubnow-Erlich, E. Mus (Emanuel Novogrudski), Hayyim Solomon Kazdan, and Emanuel Scherer, eds., Geshikhte fun Bund, 5 vols. (New York, 1960–1981); Jack Jacobs, ed., Jewish Politics in Eastern Europe: The Bund at 100 (New York, 2001); Vladimir Medem, Zikhroynes un artiklen: Mitn bild un biografye fun oytor (Warsaw, 1918); Vladimir Medem: Tsum tsvantsikstn yortsayt (New York, 1943); Moshe Mishkinsky, “Vladimir Medem—ha-ish ve-tenu‘ato” [1968], in ‘Iyunim be-sotsyalizm ha-yehudi: Asufat ma’amarim, pp. 151–158 (Beer Sheva, 2004).