Jews in Radical Politics

America's Communist movement owed a lot to Jewish support.

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Reprinted with permission from A History of Jews in America, published by Vintage Books.

The Depression accelerated a process of radicalization that had begun in the immediate aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. In the early post-revolutionary years, a left wing sprang up with the American Socialist party, favoring affiliation with the Comintern [the international Communist movement]. When the radicals were defeated at the Socialist convention in 1919, they bolted and attached themselves to the Communists.

Among Jews, this element was always a minority, even within the extensive Jewish Socialist movement. But they were a hair-shirt minority. It happened that the early postwar immigration of East European Jews included many veterans of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian civil wars.

radical politics

In the early 1920s, it was these militant newcomers who dramatically augmented the radicals' leadership. Their first and principal target was the large reservoir of Jews still laboring in the garment industry. Among the needle workers, the old flaming Socialist idealism had been fading steadily during the 1920s. At the same time, unwilling to risk union treasuries or their own salaries, officials of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers had become perfunctory in their negotiations' with management. Their flaccidity in turn proved raw meat for the Communists. Dogmatic and fiery, the latter now hurled themselves into the effort to capture the ILGWU's and Amalgamated's central offices and committees....

Jewish Leadership

Yet, if the Communists evoked little support from American Jewry at large, the party leadership continued to include a disproportionate number of Jews. Among these were Jay Lovestone, Benjamin Gitlow, William Weinstone, Bertram D. Wolfe, and Israel Amster. Well before the Depression, too, Jews contributed a significant share of the Communist party's votes (although, again, this represented a distinct minority of all Jewish ballots cast). In the presidential elections of 1924 and 1928, about one-quarter of the 50,000 votes cast on both occasions for William Z. Foster, the Communist party's nominee, came from New York, and almost certainly most were cast by Jews.

In 1925, the 22,000 circulation of Freiheit, the journal of the Jewish Socialist (Communist) Federation, actually exceeded the Daily Worker's 17,000. The tight Jewish nucleus re­mained in place throughout the 1920s, despite the party's relentless opposition both to Judaism and to Zionism as "reactionary" influences. It was this group, too, that saw its best opportunity following the Wall Street crash.

Depression &  the Jewish Radical Left

In the Great Depression of the 1930s, radicalism flowered for one of the few times in American history. Although the actual membership of the various leftist parties remained small, their impact far ex­ceeded their size. Norman Thomas, the Socialist presidential candi­date, polled almost 900,000 votes in the 1932 election; William Z. Foster, the Communist presidential candidate, polled some 100,000 votes. A General Electric engineer in Sche­nectedy could run for secretary of state of New York on the Communist ticket without losing his job. Distinguished American intellectuals such as Max Eastman, Rockwell Kent, John Dos Passos, and Edmund Wilson could flaunt their leftist credentials and their admiration for Soviet collectivism.

One after another, major American industries that had long resisted union organization capitulated to the CIO--the mili­tant Congress of Industrial Organizations--whose organizers included an important minority of Socialists, Communists, even Trotskyites. Jews were prominent among these radical elements. It was significant, however, that few of them were themselves workers. In the garment industry, earlier, Jews had learned through bitter experience how little the Communists were concerned with actual laboring and living conditions. Although Jewish unions would remain distinctly left-of-center well into the late 1920s and early I930s, it was no longer from them that the Communist party would draw its most impressionable Jewish sympathizers when the Great Depression struck.

Rather, the response came from a younger, white-collar generation, Jews in their late teens and early 20s who were caught in suspended animation on the threshold of economic security. Most were recent college graduates. Many had just entered the white-collar ranks as teachers, government employees, and social workers. Now their hopes of economic security and "respectability" lay blasted, ap­parently by an incorrigibly ruthless economic system.

Opposition to Fascism & Anti-Semitism

Even had so­cialism not been their family's and their people's tradition, it did not escape these embittered young Jews, blocked in mid-passage by de­pression and discrimination, that the Soviet leadership evidently had taken the lead in mobilizing resistance to fascism and anti-Semitism abroad and that the Communist party in the United States positioned itself in the forefront of every campaign for racial and economic jus­tice.

From 1934 on, too--reflecting Moscow's new Popular Front ap­proach--the Communists abandoned the former anti-Judaist and anti-Zionist propaganda of earlier years and appealed directly to Jews on issues of major Jewish concern. In 1937, the Yiddish Cultural Alli­ance, a Communist-front group established in New York, began issu­ing a monthly literary journal, Yidishe Kultur, that dutifully parroted Communist appeals for unity against anti-Semitism and "world reac­tion." The Communists even could say a kind word now for Jewish workers in Palestine, while the American Jewish Communist leader Moses Olgin informed his bewildered Jewish comrades that "we must learn not to scoff at religion."

Jewish Influence

So it was, during these years of communism's resurgence, that the Jewish component surfaced even more vividly than it had a decade earlier, in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution. By now, New York accounted for about one-fifth of the party's national member­ship, and that one-fifth was predominantly Jewish. All the senior edi­tors of the Daily Worker were Jews. If the party failed to make headway in the ILGWU or the Amalgamated (well immunized by the events of the 1920s), it successfully infiltrated white-collar unions, with their extensive Jewish membership of teachers, social workers, office workers, government employees, and retail clerks. It organized a spe­cial section to penetrate Jewish community centers, Jewish federa­tions, national Jewish organizations.

The West Coast office of the American Jewish Congress was almost entirely compromised by fel­low travelers. At the annual conference of the Federation of Jewish Social Welfare Agencies in 1932, the much-respected chairman, Jacob Billikopf, was nearly unseated in favor of a hard-core Communist. In 1934, radicals in the Jewish Social Workers Association defected to form the Association of Practitioners in Jewish Social Agencies--a Communist front.

Altogether, tens of thousands of Jews throughout the country were drawn to Communist-front organizations, particularly to the various "anti-Fascist" groups. One of the most popular of these, founded in 1937, was the American League against War and Fascism, later to be renamed the American League for Peace and Democracy. The Jew­ish People's Committee against Fascism and Anti-Semitism was formed in 1939, when the American Jewish Congress rejected applicants from the leftist International Workers Organization.

Impres­sionable and idealistic, students were uniquely susceptible to these leagues and alliances. In 1936, the American Student Union--later the American Youth Congress--listed 200,000 members, of whom possibly a fourth were Jews. For these young people, witnessing the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and experiencing raw discrimina­tion at home, almost any "progressive" movement would have claimed their loyalty. But with their own strong Jewish cultural traditions, they were particularly impressed by the intellectualism of the Left, by a movement that included so many admired thinkers, writers, and other individuals of cultivated tastes.

Few of them joined the Communist party outright but large numbers were drawn to front organizations, oblivious to the hard-edged Stalinism that lurked behind the façade. There was nothing cynical about their commitments. When civil war broke out in Spain, possibly 1,000 of the 3,000 volunteers in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade who departed to fight for the Loyalist cause were Jews. A third of them never returned.

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Howard Sachar

Howard M. Sachar is the author of numerous books, including A History of Israel, A History of the Jews in America, Farewell Espana, Israel and Europe, and A History of Jews in the Modern World. He is also the editor of the 39-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He serves as Professor of Modern History at George Washington University.