Anti-Capitalist Meetup: Once Upon A Time: American Socialism by Richard Lyon

Last week JayRaye brought us a very powerful diary that used the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire as a point of embarkation. This week I'd like to take us into the world where that historically important tragedy happened. I want to focus on the American Jewish immigrant community from the late 1880s up to the beginning of WW I. It is a rich and vibrant chapter in American history.

Most of us have a rather vague awareness that there was once a fairly active socialist party in the US and that a man named Eugene V. Debs ran for president on its ticket. Somehow it got swallowed up in the various red scares and the words socialist and socialism became pejorative terms in the American political lexicon. Beyond that we know very little about the historical details. I recently read a most enjoyable book that got me interested in the history, particularly that which happened in the Jewish immigrant community. The book is How Jews Became White Folks: And What That Says About Race in America by Karen Brodkin. She provides an interesting overview of the history of Yiddish socialism from a feminist perspective. Finding it very interesting, I have been doing some more reading about it.

A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York is a detailed political, social and intellectual history of various socialist movements in the Jewish immigrant community in the US at the turn of the 20th C. It focuses on New York which was the largest and dominant community. It is from this book that I got the term Yiddish socialism.

Socialism was essentially a movement brought to America by immigrant groups. It was the German, Finnish and Jewish communities who participated most actively in it. It had difficulty find places to take root in the rocky soil of the dominant WASP bourgeois culture. The descendants of the Puritans who shoved their way into New England in an effort to escape ideological conflicts had little sympathy for the later arrivals from central and eastern Europe who came for similar reasons.

The first socialists to arrive were German Social Democrats escaping Bismark's repression that began in 1878. The waves of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe fleeing Tsarist persecution began in the late 1880s. These were culturally a different group of people from the German Jewish immigrants who had arrived in the mid 19th century. They had become established and somewhat integrated into bourgeois American society. A number of the immigrants in this new wave had been active in radical political movements in Russia. They made contact with the German socialists in New York and began to incorporate their Marxist perspectives.

What I want to focus on here is the rich yeasty development of the Yiddish radical labor and political movements. The term Yiddish is employed because it ties it to a language and a culture that provided cohesion and momentum. By no means were all radicals at the dawn of the 20th C Jews, nor were all Jews radicals. Samuel Gompers who led the relatively more conservative American Federation of Labor was Jewish. However, centered in New York, there was a radical Yiddish socialist labor movement that developed organizations and institutions adapted to its purposes. It offers a very interesting piece of American history.

One of the most visible and enduring of these institutions was the socialist Yiddish language newspaper Forverts or The Jewish Daily Forward. Over 100 years after it founding in 1897, it is still being published today. It was the most widely read of a large number of Yiddish publications of a broad range of ideological perspectives that had highly variable life spans.

The garment industry provided the major source of employment for the turn of the century Jewish immigrants. This was not entirely because they lacked other skills but because the established craft unions of the AFL had a bias against new immigrants that carried definite taint of anti-semiticism. The garment industry had moved toward an industrial labor model based on the deskilling of labor rather than division by crafts. It was for that and other reasons that it was most accessible to working class Jews. This industry was the focus of a vigorous labor movement. The two largest and most enduring unions were the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union (ACWU). A majority of the workers in the ILGWU were single women. While they played an active role in building the union they occupied few positions in its formal leadership.

Karen Brodkin devotes a large portion of her book to exploring the participation of women in the Yiddish labor movement. While Yiddish culture was dominated by strong elements of paternalism, there are some interesting contrast with mainstream bourgeois society that relegated women's activities to the private space of the home. Both Jewish men and women were very active supporters of the women's suffrage movement. Married women who generally did not participate in industrial wage labor, still actively participated in the organization of radical political activity with such things as meat strikes and rent strikes.

In addition to specifically union activity social benevolent organizations play an import role in providing a source of economic support and cultural cohesion. The Arbeter Ring or The Workmen's Circle was the most prominent organization. It continues in existence. It began with a politically radical orientation and close ties to the more radical unions such as the ILGWU and ACWU. They pursued a combination of mutual aid, socialist education and worker recreation. It was an independent organization that was not directly connected to the Socialist Party or to any of the labor unions.

The grass roots Yiddish socialist political activity was connected to the broader multi-ethnic Socialist Party of America. The party accorded recognition to different language groups such as German, Finnish and Yiddish/Jewish. This movement was a constantly boiling cauldron of frequently conflicting ideological ingredients. The Yiddish community was not alone in being caught in the conflict between those who wanted to preserve a strong cultural identity and those tied to the broad internationalist perspective of socialism. Karl Marx had raised the issue of The Jewish Question. The debate over that still rages today. Within the immigrant community there was a full spectrum of opinion from assimilationists to various flavors of nationalism, with the Zionist movement occupying the most thoroughly nationalist position.

The Socialist Party of America reached the peak of it strength just prior to WWI. It elected a number of candidates to local and state offices. In the 1912 presidential election Debs got 6% of the vote. In the 1920 election he was running from prison. The socialist were strongly opposed to the entry of the US into the war and the institution of the draft. They thus ran afoul of the stampede to xenophobic nationalism. The red scare of the Palmer raids and the later McCarthy era carried heavily anti-immigrant tones with a particular emphasis on anti-semiticism.

The heritage of Yiddish socialism has made important contributions to the history of progressive political and labor movements. Many people who had grown up in that environment were very active participants in the movements of the 1930s. The New Deal was a political amalgamation that combined racist southern land owners with radical labor organizers. FDR is often credited with having saved capitalism. In the process he managed to co-opt the socialist movement into obscurity.




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a rare photo

NY brit expat's picture


this is from the uprising of the 20,000 (1909)

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Thanks for the informative overview

geomoo's picture

A lot of this was news to me.

I was comparing the movements of those times to what happens today, and one idea that occurs to me is the question of identity, specifically, the natural way in which people make common cause with others in the same circumstance.  In those days, laborers were clear that their interests lay with working people whose interests were opposed to those of the owners of capital.  Today, workers are more likely to be identified with characters they see on television than with others of their same class or tradition.  Along these lines, it occurs to me that the idea of being Jewish has been successfully converted from one of common experiences of, for example, persecution, financial status, and types of occupation to an abstract notion involving such things as loyalty to the state of Israel and support of the militarized powers who are still seen as vital protectors of Jews over fifty years after WWII.

Aside from specifics, the point I'm clumsily attempting to make is that identity has been abstracted--taken out of the context of specific mutual circumstance--and is now manipulated to serve the ends of TPTB.  It seems to me impossible that today such movements as are under discussion could exist with any vibrancy.  I'm not trying to make a point so much as wondering if anyone has any thoughts along these lines.

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