Jewish Socialism in the United States, 1920-1948

The political influence of Eastern European Jews.

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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.

During the ultra-revolutionary "Third Period" of the Communist movement (1928-1935), for example, the American Jewish Communists rejected overt expressions of Jewish culture and identity. They revived the anti-religious demonstrations of the old Anarchists, and even their Yiddish-language schools avoided explicitly Jewish subject matter.

The Socialists continued to have a number of differing attitudes toward the Jewish Question. Impressed by the kibbutzim and other Socialist projects in Palestine, some of the old cosmopolitan radicals softened their opposition to expressions of Jewish nationalism. In doing so, they drew closer to the Labor Zionists, who favored a synthesis of Socialism and Jewish nationalism. On the other hand, many Socialists who had been members of the anti-Zionist Jewish Labor Bund in Russia and Poland before coming to the United States continued to oppose Zionism as both utopian and chauvinistic, promoting instead a secular Jewish identity and acceptance of life in the Diaspora.

Labor Issues

Despite challenges, Socialists and other radicals continued to play an important role in the Jewish community throughout the 1920s. The Jewish Daily Forward remained the most popular Yiddish daily. The Workmen's Circle peaked in membership at 85,000 in 1925, and the largely Jewish garment unions enrolled thousands of members.

The movement also continued to develop a distinct labor and Socialist subculture within the Jewish community. The Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) developed alternative labor economic institutions, including a bank and a cooperative housing project, the Amalgamated Houses, in the Bronx. Communists, Labor Zionists, and radically-inclined nonpartisan Yiddishists also sponsored cooperative housing projects there. The ILGWU also created health-clinics, sanitaria, a vacation resort, a theater, and, after World War II, several housing cooperatives. The Workmen's Circle expanded its secular Yiddish school system, opened summer camps, and established a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients.

By 1930, the factional disputes between the Communists and Socialists became intolerable, and the order split. The Communist faction formed their own fraternal organization, the International Workers' Order, which offered many of the same services as the Workmen's Circle. When the Socialist radio station, WEVD (named for Socialist leader Eugene Victor Debs) was in danger of failing financially in 1932, the profitable Forward acquired it, continuing its Socialist oriented programming but giving it a Yiddish accent.
Roosevelt & the New Deal

The Great Depression of the 1930s seemed to the Socialists to confirm all of their predictions concerning the injustice and irrationality of capitalism. Ironically, it also brought many of them closer to the American political mainstream. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal--especially its enactment of old-age pensions and unemployment insurance--seemed to some to represent the fulfillment of long-standing Socialist demands. The New Deal's pro-labor stance also helped the ILGWU and other unions reach new heights of membership and influence.

Impressed, the more moderate wing of the Socialist Party (the "Old Guard") supported Roosevelt and other New Dealers without joining the Democratic Party, which they viewed as corrupt and racist. The Old Guard found its greatest support within the Jewish Socialist institutions of New York--the Forward, the Workmen's Circle, and the garment unions. In 1936, these Jewish Socialists helped form the new American Labor Party (ALP), which maintained an independent existence in New York while backing progressive politicians such as Roosevelt, Governor Hebert Lehman, and Mayor Fiorello La Guardia.

The Militants

While the Socialist Old Guard was increasingly put off by revolutionary rhetoric, many American-born and -raised young Jews, some of them second-generation radicals, were attracted to the Socialist Party's left wing. Known as the "Militants," they adopted increasingly strident rhetoric that hinted at support for (without ever quite endorsing) revolutionary insurrection, massive war resistance, and the dictatorship of the proletariat. The young radicals often joined the Young People's Socialist League (YPSL).

Meanwhile, the Communists presented themselves as the most consistent and militant opponents of Fascism. Beginning in 1935, the international Communist movement entered a new phase known as the Popular Front. It rejected revolutionary rhetoric and action in favor of alliances with all progressive forces, including Socialists, whether of the right or left, and liberals against Fascism. The Communists became enthusiastic supporters of the New Deal and entered into the ALP. But the Communists and Old Guard Socialists did not coexist peacefully within the ALP, and engaged in years of bitter internecine fighting. Finally, the anti-Communists left to form the Liberal Party in 1944.

Movement in Decline

In the wake of World War II a variety of factors combined to severely weaken the various factions of the Jewish left. American Jews experienced rapid social mobility, moving solidly into the middle and upper-middle class. Explicitly working-class politics were less attractive to them. Similarly, Jews' widespread adoption of American cultural norms militated against political expressions that seemed, in the conformist 1950s, to smack of foreign influence.

The losses that the Socialist Party experienced during the splits of the 1930s were compounded by its hesitation to support the war effort during World War II. The party shrunk into an inconsequential sect. The small group of surviving Bundists who arrived from Europe after the Holocaust seldom engaged actively with the American socialist scene. The McCarthyist attacks of the 1950s left the pro-Communist groups reeling, and the IWO and the ALP shut down.

The most severe blow to the Communists came, however, from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who confirmed the crimes of the Stalin regime, crimes the American Communists had always denied. Among these crimes was the murder of most of the leading Yiddish cultural figures of the Soviet Union between 1948 and 1952. TheFrayhayt and its English organ, Jewish Currents, survived, but were increasingly independent and critical of Communist positions on Soviet Jewry and the State of Israel.

A handful of organizations of the Jewish Socialist movement still exist today, though with much diminished membership. These include the Workmen's Circle, the Forward(which now publishes English and Yiddish weeklies), the Jewish Labor Committee,Jewish Currents, the Labor Zionist Ameinu; and the Socialist Zionist youth movementsHabonim-Dror and Hashomer Hatzair. With the exception of the youth movements, these organizations and publications no longer define themselves explicitly as Socialist, but many continue to work for social justice.

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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.