Jews in Radical Politics

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

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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."

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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.