Jewish Socialism in the United States, 1920-1948

The political influence of Eastern European Jews.

Print this page Print this page

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.

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.