Socialist Zionism rose out of a criticism of both existing Zionism and Jewish Socialism in the Early Zionist era.
Socialist Zionism is not simply a mechanical combination of two words: Zionism and Socialism. Nor is it a compromise between two conflicting principles. Anyone who believes that this is so has never grasped its ideology and spirit, nor its intrinsic integrity. Socialist Zionism made its appearance after Jewish Socialism was established. In other words, there were not only socialists from among the Jewish people delegated to convert the masses to Socialism but there was also the Bund, the trade union of Jewish workers organized as a Jewish body from amongst the Jewish people. But the Bund learned its socialism from “the great teachers" and presented it wholemeal to the Jewish worker, without making use of its own intellectual force to analyze how this new kind of world (for reasons of brevity called: the social revolution) would actually operate within the sphere of Jewish life, nor did it have the power to eva luate the particular fate of the Jewish worker linked to the fate of his own people.
Socialist Zionism rose out of a criticism of both existing Zionism and Jewish Socialism. This movement arose because of the realization of a deep contradiction between the Jewish world and the theories of the leading movements: General Zionism (i.e. the Bourgeoisie) and general Socialism in its Jewish aspect (i.e. the Bund). Syrkin saw that General Zionism distinguished for its overblown grandiose style was smugly satisfied with a miserly philanthropy, actually supporting the forces of reaction, incapable of large scale settlement, and not even daring to take it into consideration. It was creating a deep chasm - between the Zionist idea, the idea of deliverance from the Exile and coping with the vital needs of the Jewish masses. Syrkin saw the Bund as some kind of organization for stuffing the Jewish worker with Marxist phrases, lacking a solid basic programme for creating an independent culture that could lead to national liberation. It lacked an understanding of the fact that there was no true redemption for the Jewish worker if his people were not delivered from their Exile.
Socialist Zionism began as one of the revolutionary movements of that time. It cracked the whip of its criticism not only over the bourgeoisie and capitalist world, it revolted not only against the autocratic rule of the Tsar, the secret police and agent-provocateurs, it also struck against the accepted dogmas of the socialist world. It dared to think independently and weigh up its own responsibility - a most difficult undertaking. At a time when most of the socialist intellectuals among the Jewish people were satisfied with ready-made ideas, lapped up the Erfurt Programme of the German Social Democratic Party in 1891 and the illegal literature of the Russian Social Democrats, nor dared to question the doctrines of their teachers which they considered sacrosanct - Socialist Zionism probed the validity of the most hallowed doctrines.
Socialist Zionism, just as a scientist baulked by a tiny detail contradicting the whole accepted formula is impelled to re-examine the whole formula, is also impelled to scrutinize these wide generalizations in the light of the "tiny detail" - the harrowing Jewish problem - which was not considered nor resolved within the universal formula. The first generation of Socialist Zionists felt the suffering of the Jewish people. They realized that stock phrases were no complete answer to the question, and the universal panacea no remedy for the unique Jewish malady.
From the outset they understood that the main problem was providing work for the Jewish masses, and with piercing insight maintained that the downfall of Russian Tsarism and the granting of "equal rights" and the abolition of the Pale of Settlement, the common aspiration of both the Jewish bourgeoisie and the socialists - would not save the people from their eternal wanderings nor the life of the 'luftmensch'. If there was no future for the Jewish worker in the Exile, there was no future for Socialism-in-Exile. Socialist Zionism sharply and furiously mocked at the paucity of spirit and the shallowness of Jewish Socialism, its cowardly thinking, the open enslavement within the revolution and the brash confidence of the ignorant mingling in Jewish life, as Syrkin described the Bund; or the theoretical "alrightist” type of the Jewish Labour Movement in America, and in its perpetual inner criticism, Socialist Zionism enlarged the scope of its analyses beyond the boundaries of the Jewish world.
At that period, on the threshold of the twentieth century, European Socialism conceived the existence of a placid, idyllic life, and its thinking - confident and optimistic - was established by venerable “disciples" who pursued the ways that had been set for them. The Jewish intellectual enthusiastically accepted everything put out by the apostles of Karl Kautsky and Georgi Plekhanov, in the same way as the provincial city blindly follows the dictates of fashion. Somewhere in Paris, the arbiter of fashion cuts, sews and controls the market. In intellectual life, too, many are bound to this "Paris Couturier" and those who do not follow the intellectual fashion are regarded as being "queer", like somebody from another planet. In those days Socialist Zionism undertook to work intensively. It was as if these ‘unruly’ impudent pupils, Syrkin, Zytlovsky, Borochov, and their colleagues said to the dictators of Socialism: - “If you cannot grasp our problem, this is a sign that there are many other matters which have escaped you." With assimilation - "emancipation in the Exile" - as a point of departure, Socialist Zionist thinking was spurred on to a criticism of the values of actual Socialism. Opinions prevailing on the interpretation of nationalism and the nationalist movements, the agrarian question, the small farmer, cooperation, the migration of peoples, the settlement of lands, the poor grasp of what was exactly involved in the task of the pioneering avant-garde Socialist worker, the lack of orientation towards the obligations of personal commitment - all these issues, even then, engaged and perturbed Zionist Socialist thinking and forced it to charter its own course.
This was the movement in its early days, when it had the power to negotiate the stumbling blocks of life in Exile, and reach the harbour of redemption. Later it crashed on these very obstacles. Many of its standard-bearers and disciples could not muster sufficient strength to sustain them and complete what they had daringly and heroically commenced. They did not have the stamina to pursue their independent, revolutionary ideas, to uphold in actual life the change to values which they had evolved and in the struggle for which they had become united. They became exhausted finally and bowed to the ‘style of the Paris Couturier’, the controlling dictator and legislator. But this dictator, or dictatorship (depending on whether it is individual or collective) is also vulnerable. He, too, was more than once cast down from the sublime heights to the deep pit below, but this throne never stood vacant. It was always filled by someone else. That is the fate of a "Paris Couturier". As a ruler, he is an absolute despotic infallible sovereign. Who would dare to challenge him? Only a few stubborn people would renounce public acclaim, would turn away from the smoothly constructed highway into the unknown path, and they were the people who laid out the paths that we tread today.
It is doubtful whether our movement in the land of Israel would have acted as it did if not for the daring exploration of Socialist Zionism in its early days. A great spiritual heritage was accumulated in our movement from the time of Moses Hess to the present day. And if this heritage had been bequeathed to our younger generation, then it would have saved countless victims.