Jewish Socialism in the United States, 1920-1948

The political influence of Eastern European Jews.

Print this page Print this page

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.

The disputes wracked the unions and the fraternal order as well. Internal fights raged within the Jewish Workmen's Circle and the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU), which was dominated by Jews. In 1926, the conflict in the ILGWU came to a head when Communists led a disastrous general strike of cloak makers that nearly wrecked the union. These civil wars among radicals sapped the movement's energies throughout the 1920s.

The Jewish Question

In addition to their differences concerning the Soviet Union, radical factions also differed in their attitudes toward Jewish identity and culture. In 1922, the Communists founded their own daily newspaper, the Frayhayt (Freedom), attracting a number of important Yiddish writers who were dissatisfied with the dictatorial control exerted by Abraham Cahan at the Forward. But the American Communist approach to issues of Jewish culture, identity, and political interest always followed the lead of the Soviet and international Communist leadership.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.