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Mill, John

(1870–1952), political leader and Bundist activist. John Mill (also known as Yoysef Shloyme Mil) was one of the founders of the Jewish Labor Bund and a central activist during its first two decades. He was born in Panevėžys (Kovno province, Lithuania; then in tsarist Russia) to a family of acculturated Jews. Despite being exposed to some Yiddish at home, his first language was Russian, he studied in Russian public schools, and most of his childhood friends were Russian-speaking.

Mill became a revolutionary at school, where he joined a secret group of radical Polish, Russian, and Jewish students. Through Tsemakh Kopelzon (later a Bundist leader as well), the group made contacts with revolutionary circles in Vilna and was exposed to Marxist ideas. Under these influences, Mill moved to Vilna in 1889, enrolled in his final year of high school, and became a prominent member of Jewish workers’ circles.

In 1895, Mill moved to Warsaw to organize similar circles in Polish territories, engaging in intense exchanges with members of the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) and the internationalist Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL). In Warsaw, he developed complex relationships with Rosa Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches, leaders of the latter group. While sharing with them an intransigent commitment to Marxism, Mill criticized their extreme cosmopolitan attitude that left no room for Jewish or Polish national identities. At the same time, he harshly criticized the PPS’s nationalism.

From his dealings with Polish Marxists and socialist nationalists in Warsaw, Mill became increasingly interested in and aware of the questions of nation and nationality. Later he would be one of the first Bundist leaders to support the adoption of a national program. Moreover, the fact that even though the Jewish revolutionary circles often collaborated with the SDKPiL, they fiercely competed with the more organized PPS for the support of Jewish workers, which led Mill to realize the need to organize as a separate Jewish party. He was thus instrumental in the creation of the Jewish Labor Bund, and indeed was one of 13 activists to participate in its founding congress in Vilna in 1897.

As one of the Bund’s main leaders in its first years, Mill held the important position of editor of the main party organ, Der yidisher arbeter. While strictly adhering to orthodox Marxism, he made independent and bold editorial decisions, including the choice to publish articles by the Bund’s rivals such as Khayim Zhitlovski and Rosa Luxemburg. Forced to flee Russia after the wave of arrests that decimated the Bund leadership in 1898, he lived in exile in Geneva, where he established the Bund’s Foreign Committee.

Mill was one of the most vocal supporters to encourage the Bund to adopt a national program during debates at the organization’s Third Congress (Kovno, December 1899). Influenced by Austro-Marxist Karl Renner and the South Slav delegation’s proposal at the Brünn Congress of the All-Austrian Social Democratic Party (Gesamtpartei) in 1899, he held that Russia must be transformed into a multinational state where each nationality would be legally defined as the aggregate of its individual members (rather than on a territorial basis) and granted self-government on cultural matters, a concept later known as national-cultural autonomy. Mill’s efforts bore fruit at the party’s Fourth Congress (Białystok, May 1901), when, after several years of heated debates, the autonomist proposal was accepted in principle. Until World War I, Mill lived mostly in Geneva and Paris, in dire poverty, and he continued to lead the Bund’s Foreign Committee in Western Europe. In that capacity, he represented the Bund in the Socialist International and in the party’s interactions with other socialist organizations.

Following his emigration to the United States in 1915, Mill settled in Chicago and left active politics, but he remained close to Bundist circles and wrote extensively for Yiddish publications. He died in 1952.

Suggested Reading

Roni Gechtman, “Yidisher sotsyalizm: The Origin and Contexts of the Jewish Labor Bund’s National Program” (Ph.D. diss., New York University, 2005); 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); Moshe Mishkinsky, Reshit 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); Joshua Zimmerman, Poles, Jews and the Politics of Nationality: The Bund and the Polish Socialist Party in Late Tsarist Russia, 1892–1914 (Madison, Wisc., 2004).