Aaron Liebermann: the father of Jewish socialism

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Radical political change has been a formative factor in modern Jewish history, Jews often having been at the forefront of movements aimed at improving the living standards of ordinary people. Leon Trotsky (ne Bronstein) was not the first Jew to want to change the state of society, and Jews played a significant role in left-wing revolutionary politics from the middle of the nineteenth century. One such was Aaron Samuel Liebermann, generally viewed as a relatively minor figure in the history of the movement. In the 1870s, however, he played a notable role in left-wing politics. He was to some extent influenced by Moses Hess, the forerunner of modern Zionism and an early Jewish advocate of reform. Hess's tomb? stone in Cologne (later moved to near the Sea of Galilee) was inscribed with the words 'Father of German Social Democracy'.1 But Ber Borochov, the socialist Zionist leader and one of the most influential figures in the Jewish labour movement, gave Liebermann the title of the 'Father of Jewish Socialism'.2 Rudolf Rocker also described Liebermann as 'rightly the father of Jewish socialism', and said that he was one of the most remarkable men in the socialist movement of his time.3 Rocker, a Yiddish-speaking non-Jew of German birth, spent much of his time in the East End of London largely among Jews, where he was a leading figure in the Jewish anarchist move? ment. A twentieth-century authority on Jewish socialist history, Boris Sapir, also considers that Liebermann deserves to be regarded as the founder of Jewish socialism.4 Liebermann, the first Jewish socialist to try persistently to organize Jewish workers,5 merits more than a footnote in the history books.

Liebermann was born in Luna, a town in the province of Grodno in Russia, in about 1849. His early education was traditional and it is said that

1 J. Frankel, Prophecy and Politics (Cambridge 1981) 47.

2 Ber Borochov, Nationalism and the Class Struggle (Westport, CT 1972) 169.

3 R. Rocker, The London Years (London 1956) 112.

4 B. Sapir, 'Liebermann et le Socialisme Russe', International Review for Social History III (1938) 87.

5 N. Levin, Jewish Socialist Movements 1871-igij (London and Henley 1978) 30.

his grandfather introduced him to the Talmud when he was only six years old. At sixteen he went to the Vilna Rabbinical Seminary, in reality a teach? ers' seminary, from which he graduated as 'teacher of the first rank in a Government school'.6 Some time spent in St Petersburg exposed him to revolutionary ideas and by the age of twenty-four, when he returned to Vilna, he was a secularist and a maskil (modernist). Isaakovich Zundelovitch had established an organization called the Vilna Circle in 1873, and Liebermann joined this group, which consisted primarily of pupils of a yeshiva and a teachers' college, becoming its leading figure. In contrast to other Jewish activists, who did not really understand what motivated work? ing-class Jews, Liebermann and Zundelovitch endeavoured to gain support from the Jewish masses.7 The Circle existed for only two years, with a maximum membership of twenty-six, but,

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