American Jewish Socialism arose in the 1880s with mass Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe, but it was not simply a Russian import. Jewish American immigrants turned to Socialism in response to their experiences on both sides of the Atlantic.
Many Jews in late 19th-century Eastern Europe had endured downward socio-economic mobility as traditional Jewish economic niches were undermined by the expanding industrial capitalist system. This experience, combined with persecution under the Tsars and encounters with poverty and factory labor in America, inspired many Jews to look for radical social change.
Jews as Proletarians
The influx of Jewish immigrants from Russia in the 1880s brought with it a small but vocal number of intellectuals, many of whom had had a Russian-language education and some of whom had been active in the early Russian revolutionary movement. In America, they took manual jobs, especially in the fledgling garment industry, and began to see themselves for the first time as proletarians, members of the industrial working class.
Meanwhile, they aligned themselves with either Anarchist or Marxian Socialist ideologies: Anarchists favored direct action and stressed the inherently oppressive class nature of the state, while Socialists (Social Democrats, as they were called) sought to capture control of the state for the working class. In the early years, though, the line between the factions was blurry, and both sides worked together in a number of short-lived organizations and institutions, including the Propaganda Association and the Russian Labor Lyceum.
At first, the Socialist intellectuals found it difficult to influence the much larger community of Jewish immigrant workers, who spoke only Yiddish and had not had the same experiences of the revolutionary movement in Russia. These intellectuals preferred to carry out their activities in Russian, and doubted that serious political ideas could be expressed in Yiddish, which they viewed as an inferior dialect of German. Gradually, however, the radicals began to give speeches and issue publications in Yiddish.