Jewish Socialism in the United States, 1920-1948

The political influence of Eastern European Jews.

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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.

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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.