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Gozhansky, Shmul

(1867–1943?), political leader and Bundist theorist. Shmul Gozhansky (sometimes spelled Gozshansky; also known by his pseudonyms Lonu or Der Lerer [the teacher]) was born in Grodno to a middle-class family and graduated from the Vilna Teachers’ Institute in 1888. He then taught in Kovno, Białystok, and Vilna. Gozhansky participated in revolutionary activities as a young man and in 1889 helped to organize the tailors’ strike in Vilna. In the 1890s, he was a Russified intellectual who led the revolutionary circles of Jewish workers that gave rise to the Jewish Labor Bund.

Gozhansky was exceptional among the circles’ leaders in being a fluent Yiddish speaker. Consequently, he became one of the main publicists of Vilna revolutionary circles and the main organizer of its workers’ academic study groups. No less important, he played a key role in the circles’ conspiratorial activities: as a well-known teacher with many connections among Vilna’s “respectable” middle class, Gozhansky was viewed as the most established member, and thus his apartment served as the perfect place for illegal meetings and to hide clandestine revolutionary materials.

Gozhansky is best known for his 1894 pamphlet A briv tsu agitatorn (A Letter to Agitators). Together with Arkadii Kremer’s Ob agitatsii (On Agitation), this text was a central motivation for the change in the Vilna circles’ tactics from promoting “propaganda” (conspiratorial work and comprehensive education of small circles of workers) to “agitation” (disseminating fewer political ideas to larger, and therefore less committed, groups of workers). Following Kremer’s analysis, Gozhansky stressed the crucial importance of raising class-consciousness and political awareness among Jewish workers. He claimed that not theoretical study but rather practical involvement in the struggle would mobilize workers into political action. He encouraged social democratic organizations to focus less on study and instead address the day-to-day, practical economic experience of workers while raising their awareness of the ultimate goals of the proletarian struggle.

Adhering to strict Marxist internationalism, Gozhansky insisted that the national Jewish political struggle was actually the struggle of all workers for the liberation of all humanity, including Jews; he thus proclaimed the need to promote collaboration with workers from other nationalities. Jewish workers alone, Gozhansky claimed, could not achieve the equal rights they lacked in tsarist Russia unless the whole society became free. The fate of Jewish workers was tied to the proletarian revolution. At the same time, he argued that Jewish revolutionary leaders should be more responsive to the specific needs of the Jewish workers they attempted to organize and represent, as recent experience in other countries (Austria-Hungary and Romania) showed that a more democratic regime would not automatically grant equal rights to Jews.

The Letter to Agitators represents a new departure in the history of the Vilna circles because it was originally published in Yiddish (rather than Russian). Besides the Letter, in the mid-1890s Gozhansky produced a series of didactic stories in Yiddish aimed at exposing Jewish workers’ exploitative conditions in industrial factories and stressing the need to overcome political passivity.

Gozhansky was arrested in Białystok in January 1896, with five other workers and activists, and was sentenced to five years’ banishment. He served his sentence in Verkhoyansk in northeast Siberia and was released in 1902. According to John Mill (another Bund pioneer), Gozhansky underwent a profound change in Siberia: influenced by fellow anarcho-syndicalist activists, after his release he had serious doubts about the extent to which the leadership of the working class by members of the intelligentsia was beneficial. Nevertheless, on his return from banishment, he continued to be active in the Bund, attending party congresses and conferences until 1908 and even standing as a candidate for the elections to the Second Duma in 1907. In the years of reaction that followed the 1905 Revolution, however, he left active politics. He returned briefly to political activity in 1917 and made some contributions to the Bundist press, but soon after the October Revolution he joined the Bolshevik Party and became critical of the Jewish labor movement. In the 1920s, he worked for the Communist trade union movement and in Yiddish cultural organizations, serving among other capacities on the editorial board for the Yiddish edition of Lenin’s collected works.

As was true of other Bundist activists who joined the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, Gozhansky’s biography is not included in commemorative collections or remembrances of Bundist activists, such as Doyres Bundistn (Generations of Bundists). Arrested during Stalin’s Great Purges of 1936–1938 and sent into internal exile, Gozhansky’s ultimate fate is unknown.

Suggested Reading

Jonathan Frankel, Prophecy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism, and the Russian Jews, 1862–1917 (Cambridge, 1981); Shmul Gozshansky, “A briv tsu agitatorn,” [1893] in Di yidishe sotsyalistishe bavegung biz der grindung fun “Bund”, ed. Elye Tsherikover, Avrom Menes, Frants Kursky, and Avrom Rozin (Ben-Adir), pp. 626–648, Historishe shriftn 3 (Vilna and Paris, 1939); Jacob Sholem Hertz, Doyres bundistn, 3 vols. (New York, 1956–1968); Ezra Mendelsohn, Class Struggle in the Pale: The Formative Years of the Jewish Workers’ Movement in Tsarist Russia (Cambridge, 1970); Beynish Mikhalevitsh (Yoysef Izbitski), “Erev Bund,” in Royter Pinkes, pp. 31–44 (Warsaw, 1921); John Mill, Pionern un boyer: Memuarn, 2 vols. (New York, 1946–1949); Moshe Mishkinsky, Re’shit tenu‘at ha-po‘alim ha-yehudit be-Rusyah: Megamot yesod (Tel Aviv, 1981); Henry Jack Tobias, The Jewish Bund in Russia from Its Origins to 1905 (Stanford, Calif., 1972).