Jewish Socialism in the United States, 1880-1920

The birth and growth of American Jewish Socialism.

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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.

socialism posterAt 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.

Socialism in Yiddish

Abraham Cahan, a young immigrant from Vilna, Lithuania, is credited with giving the first Yiddish Socialist speech in America. In 1882, after attending a Socialist meeting ostensibly aimed at Jewish workers but at which all of the speakers had given their remarks in Russian or German, Cahan asked the organizers why they did not use the language of the people they were trying to reach. The radicals laughed at the thought and contemptuously suggested that he try it himself.

A week later, in a packed meeting room, Cahan explained the Marxist theory of surplus value in Yiddish. Bernard Weinstein, who was to become secretary of the United Hebrew Trades, a federation of predominantly Jewish trade unions, later wrote in his memoirs that this was the first time he really understood the doctrine of Socialism.

Over time, the radicals' speeches and publications began to attract more people to their cause. At the same time, the Anarchists lost ground, and most of the Jewish radicals gravitated toward Socialism. In the 1880s and 1890s this meant joining the Socialist Labor Party (SLP).

Nevertheless, the Anarchists remained a visible and vocal presence, with energetic and eloquent champions such as the non-Jewish German Johan Most and Emma Goldman, who had come to the United States from Russia as a teenager. The Anarchists also published a highly regarded Yiddish-language paper, the Fraye arbeter shtime (Free Voice of Labor), known not only for its politics but for its high literary standards.

By the early 1900s, the institutional groundwork for a powerful Jewish Socialist movement had been laid. One of the most important institutions of the movement was the Workmen's Circle (Arbeter Ring), which began as a mutual aid society in 1892 and was reorganized as a multi-branch fraternal order in 1900.

The Workmen's Circle provided its members with material assistance, such as health and death benefits, and its branches served as venues for social interaction and cultural expression. Branches also supported their members who were on strike, and the order as a whole aided striking unions and Socialist causes. Members were permitted to hold whatever political or religious opinions they liked, as long as they did not vote for the candidates of a bourgeois party. The order itself was resolutely secular.

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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.