Author Archives: Daniel Soyer

Daniel Soyer

About Daniel Soyer

Daniel Soyer is associate professor of history at Fordham University. He is the author of Jewish Immigrant Associations and American Identity in New York, 1880-1939 , and editor of A Coat of Many Colors: Immigrations, Globalization, and Reform in the New York City Garment Industry.

Jewish Socialism in the United States, 1880-1920

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.

Jewish Socialism in the United States, 1920-1948

The American Jewish Socialist movement arose with the mass immigration of Eastern European Jews after 1880. It took decades for the Socialists to gain widespread support within the immigrant community, but by the 1910s they had built a mass movement with a number of large and influential institutions and growing electoral success.

By that time, the Socialist Jewish Daily Forward was the most widely read Yiddish daily in the world; the Workmen’s Circle, a Jewish labor fraternal order under Socialist leadership enrolled tens of thousands of members; and Socialists headed the bourgeoning needle-trades unions. Beginning in 1914, the Socialist Party scored a series of political victories in Jewish districts in New York, electing Meyer London to Congress and a number of members to the city and state legislatures.

Experiencing Setbacks

As the 1920s began, American Jewish Socialism was a powerful movement. But it soon experienced a number of setbacks: In 1919-1920, in reaction to both Socialist opposition to World War I and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, a wave of anti-radical hysteria swept the country.

In New York, the state assembly refused to seat five elected Socialist assemblymen. At the same time, Jewish immigrant districts were carved up to dilute Socialist voting strength, and the Democratic and Republican parties ran joint candidates against Socialist officeholders. Federal and state investigations and raids targeted the left wing of the movement; many were arrested and a few deported.

But radicals inflicted damage internally as well. In 1919, two years after the Russian Revolution, the Socialist Party split, with the greatest admirers of the new Soviet power forming the Communist Party. The division of the American Socialist movement extended to its Jewish sector. In 1921, the Jewish Socialist Federation, the Yiddish-speaking affiliate of the Socialist Party, decided by a majority vote to leave the party and unite with the Communists. Those Federation members who preferred to remain with the Socialist Party formed the Jewish Socialist Verband (Federation) and remained with the Socialists.