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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.  

Originally posted to Anti-Capitalist Meetup on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 03:00 PM PST.

Also republished by History for Kossacks and Street Prophets .

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Comment Preferences

  •  Bookmarked, with thanks. (6+ / 0-)

    This is an area of history with which I am relatively unfamiliar.

  •  Meat Strikes? (6+ / 0-)

    Great post, Richard!  Yiddish culture not only produced a strong socialist movement, but was the source of wonderful literature and theater, which I encountered only in translations, unfortunately.

    I know that Rent Strikes have been a common New York City phenomenon, but this is the first I have ever heard about Meat Strikes.  Do you have any details on this?

    Convict Bush, Cheney and their torture cabal. Support universal health care,unions, WikiLeaks and Occupy Wall Street! Time for a totally new, democratic economic system. Turn the corporations into worker cooperatives!

    by Justina on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 03:26:15 PM PST

  •  ACM Schedule (4+ / 0-)

    December 23: Justina
    December 30: Annieli

    2013

    January 6th: Geminijen, part II on education
    January 13th: UnaSpenser and NY brit expat

    January 20th:
    January 27th:

    February:

    3rd:
    10th:
    17th:
    24th:

    We need two more volunteers for January and then we are starting recruiting for February. We need volunteers to keep the series going, we have had some excellent pieces and this is a great series which we run collectively. If you can write something please, reply to this message or send a personal message at dkos to ny brit expat as she is just organising the schedule at the moment.

    People had asked if we could move the series to Sunday morning, we haven't had a chance to discuss this among the admin (it has been a busy week) and also we need to send out messages. So, we are slowly working on it and have not forgotten. If you would either prefer sunday morning or the current time, please respond to this post or send ny brit expat a personal message so it will mean that I do not have to send them out individually to everyone that is a member of the ACM. Thanks!!!

    "Hegel noticed somewhere that all great world history facts and people so to speak twice occur. He forgot to add: the one time as tragedy, the other time as farce" Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte .

    by NY brit expat on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 03:27:05 PM PST

  •  I finished this a few weeks ago (7+ / 0-)

    http://www.amazon.com/...

    The Long Detour is an intellectually engaging overview of the history of socialism in the United States and of the continuing relevance of socialist principles today. Historian and journalist James Weinstein, a lifelong socialist and one-time Communist, takes readers from the movement's early years of utopian communities, through the heyday of engagement with the makers of corporate America, and into the future of a de-industrializing era. He contends that socialism as a political movement was sidetracked when Communist domination of the American left stifled creative social thought and diverted the traditional left into sterile disputes over the true nature of the Soviet Union. And he argues that while "real existing socialism" - which is what the Soviets called their system - is dead, the humane social principles articulated by Marx and the leaders of the pre-1917 socialist movement remain vitally important to those on the left who seek to realize the promise of American democracy.
    Worth a read

    "If I pay a man enough money to buy my car, he'll buy my car." Henry Ford

    by johnmorris on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 03:36:37 PM PST

  •  Did you uncover connections... (6+ / 0-)

    ...to the Workingmen's Clubs that proliferated across US cities?  Many had ethnic origins and constituencies, and all had educational components, offering practical and cultural classes to the working poor.  Many were assuredly, sometimes openly, socialist, and their decline during the Depression -- after something like fifty years of activity -- coincided with the rise and rapid fall (as Communism was splintered with the awareness of Stalin's purges) of the John Reed Clubs, also in many US cities.

  •  Excellent piece Richard! (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    NY brit expat, Richard Lyon, Justina

    The poetry and art and music in the Jewish Daily Forward is great to rummage thru.

    Exactly what we need more of today.

    WE NEVER FORGET Our Labor Martyrs: a project to honor the men, women and children who lost their lives in Freedom's Cause. For Dec: Life so cheap; property so sacred.

    by JayRaye on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 03:39:00 PM PST

  •  Great post Richard! (4+ / 0-)

    It is such an incredibly important history that seems to have been lost or merely forgotten.  I wanted to raise the Jewish Bund whose ideas were probably brought over to the US from Eastern Europe. Yiddish was the language spoken by Ashkenazi Jews and hence that is why that language was spoken by so many eastern and central European Jewish immigrants. A history of rich political organisation and a wonderful culture that adapted to living in the US. So while the Bund who were Mensheviks argued for a Jewish nation in the Pale which they should represent, there was clearly never a movement like this in the US as there was not a Jewish majority as there were in so many districts of the Pale before the Holocaust.  However, the struggle for socialism was never adapted and organisation of the Jewish working class and the creation of a uniquely Jewish american culture which influenced not only the rest of the left, but music (Klezmer was revived in the US for example) and theatre and other forms of culture.

    There were Jewish socialists, of course, that did not speak Yiddish; those Jews that came from Italy, Spain and Portugal and the Middle East did not speak Yiddish.  But I so seriously wanted to thank you for this piece; a part of Jewish history that has been lost or forgotten is being discussed tonight and that is due to you! Thanks!

    "Hegel noticed somewhere that all great world history facts and people so to speak twice occur. He forgot to add: the one time as tragedy, the other time as farce" Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte .

    by NY brit expat on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 03:39:26 PM PST

    •  On a personal note, this is so lovely to see here! (4+ / 0-)

      I have vivid memories of my grandfather sitting on the stoop in front of the apartment reading the Forward in Yiddish (even living to 93, he never learned to read in English), we had the newspaper in my house, my mother used to raise money for the City of Hope which was set up by Workmen's Circle to help those suffering from tuberculosis and work-contracted illnesses of the lungs, my aunt was in a Workmen's circle nursing home in the Bronx and both uncles were trade-union organisers and socialists. To see a reference to this rich history here has literally made my night! :)

      "Hegel noticed somewhere that all great world history facts and people so to speak twice occur. He forgot to add: the one time as tragedy, the other time as farce" Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte .

      by NY brit expat on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 03:46:32 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Plz tell me that you still have some (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        NY brit expat, Richard Lyon, Justina

        old copies of the JDF, expat!

        What a treasure that would be.

        WE NEVER FORGET Our Labor Martyrs: a project to honor the men, women and children who lost their lives in Freedom's Cause. For Dec: Life so cheap; property so sacred.

        by JayRaye on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 04:03:17 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  wish I did, but unfortunately no ... (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          JayRaye, Justina

          otoh, if you want some old austro-hungarian currency and pre-revolution Tsarist Russian currency, am glad to share! :)  ... you know how something is normal and it isn't treasured ... hence no copies of the Forward ... sigh ...

          "Hegel noticed somewhere that all great world history facts and people so to speak twice occur. He forgot to add: the one time as tragedy, the other time as farce" Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte .

          by NY brit expat on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 04:07:36 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Nobody in my family (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            JayRaye, NY brit expat

            saved any Confederate money. :)

            •  was cleaning out my parents' apartment (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              JayRaye, Richard Lyon

              after my mom died and accidentally (and fortunately) knocked over a cigar box ... was wondering why Catherine the Great was looking at me (currency from 1896), also a picture of an elderly woman that looks just like my grandfather and whom I assume is my great-grandmom, my grandfather's social security card, some austro-hungarian currency, currency from Krakow ... the precious things (as they didn't have much) were the photos many of people lost to the Holocaust which I grabbed after my grandfather's death.

              They may have saved the currency in case they needed it if they visited; I have a feeling this box travelled a long way before it fell open at my feet in florida.

              "Hegel noticed somewhere that all great world history facts and people so to speak twice occur. He forgot to add: the one time as tragedy, the other time as farce" Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte .

              by NY brit expat on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 04:15:04 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

              •  What a precious find! (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                NY brit expat

                One thing I wish we had was a picture of the inside of our barn.

                It was basically a log cabin barn. Grandpa cut the trees himself (northern pine, I think) and built the barn with the help of his sons and a neighbor.

                Didn't look like much from the outside, covered with tar-paper, but inside was beautiful esp by kerosene lantern.

                But you're right, common place to us back then, esp since cows had to be milked twice a day, 365 days a year. But would be great to have some nice photos now.

                And while we're on the subject of Socialism. Just North of us was the Mesabi Iron Range, full of Finnish Socialist in the early 1900s, and a great strike led by the IWW in 1916.

                Minneapolis had a Socialist Mayor in the 1920s. And MN had a Farmer-Labor Gov, Gov Olson. Forget the year.

                Eventually merged with the Dems who are now known as the MN Democratic Farmer-Labor Party. (the DFL)

                WE NEVER FORGET Our Labor Martyrs: a project to honor the men, women and children who lost their lives in Freedom's Cause. For Dec: Life so cheap; property so sacred.

                by JayRaye on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 04:29:33 PM PST

                [ Parent ]

                •  I had always associated the socialist party (1+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:
                  JayRaye

                  with the Germans and the Scandinavians; the Workmen's Circle with the Bund and the Central and Eastern European Jews with the CP and the Trotskyist parties. As such, strong socialist roots in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Anarchism was more of an american movement but which also had strong support from Italian immigrants which brought the tradition with them. This was such an interesting piece for me which tied into a rich ethnic fabric of immigrants to the US which built trade union movements of various types, struggled for socialism from various perspectives, all of which contributed to the wealth of left-wing culture and politics which seems to be so weak these days.

                  "Hegel noticed somewhere that all great world history facts and people so to speak twice occur. He forgot to add: the one time as tragedy, the other time as farce" Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte .

                  by NY brit expat on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 04:46:37 PM PST

                  [ Parent ]

  •  My father grew up in Wilburton Ok (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    NY brit expat, JayRaye, Richard Lyon

    It was a small coal mining town in eastern Oklahoma and the United Mine Workers were strong. Eugene Debs was invited to speak there and the local union was opposed to the formation of a boy scout troop because they did not want their young people to be militarized. This side of America is not discussed enough.

    •  We have lost touch with so much of (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Paul Ferguson, JayRaye

      our history and the struggles of working people for economic, political and social justice; so much has been lost or forgotten. I love social history, we need so much more discussion of it here.

      "Hegel noticed somewhere that all great world history facts and people so to speak twice occur. He forgot to add: the one time as tragedy, the other time as farce" Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte .

      by NY brit expat on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 04:47:58 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Excellent post on immigrant socialism (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    FG, WB Reeves, NY brit expat, JayRaye

    and its extraordinary contribution to the past and present of the American left. I learned things I either didn't know or had forgotten. Thanks.

    However, as to the following three statements:

    "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."

    These overstate the case. Of course immigrant communities played a key role in electoral socialism starting in the 1870s with the SLP, however:

    Eugene Debs was not part of an immigrant community and was a native-born Protestant. Likewise Julius Wayland. And when Debs ran for President in 1912, getting his best showing of nearly 1 million votes (6%), several of the states (e.g. OK) where he got more than 10% of the vote had mainly native-born support. Long before Debs, Americans were experimenting with various forms of cooperative and communal socialism, including Fourierist Phalanxes in the 1840s, and native-born WASPs across the Northeast founded the world's first explicitly working class political parties, the "Working Men's Parties," in the 1820s.

    Sorry for going on so long, but this is an area of interest since I wrote my MA Thesis on the Working Men's Parties in 1985. I think it's important to appreciate all the streams of American socialism, starting with the England-derived "Radicalism" of the 18th Century, itself directly rooted in the ideas of the English Revolution. I've often thought to write a diary on it. But I digress.

    Excellent post.

    "Karl Marx and Frederick Engels came to the checkout at the 7-11 Marx was skint - but he had sense Engels lent him the necessary pence What have we got? Yeh-o, magnificence!!" (The Clash, 1976-1983)

    by Le Gauchiste on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 05:59:01 PM PST

    •  Well stated (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      NY brit expat, JayRaye

      there has been a stream of social and political radicalism in the US dating back to its founding. It has been broadened an enriched by waves of immigrants but it is an error to imagine that they are they source of radicalism in the US. Consider the example of John Brown.

      Nothing human is alien to me.

      by WB Reeves on Mon Dec 17, 2012 at 02:00:20 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  If only that ideal (0+ / 0-)

    was extended to Palestinians...

    ..the smoker you drink, the player you get....

    by Diane Gee on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 06:59:04 PM PST

    •  The groups we are discussing were (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      JayRaye, WB Reeves

      not zionists; the Bund was anti-Zionist and so was workmen's circle initially. There were many different political positions in the Jewish community until Zionism became hegemonic after WWII.

      "Hegel noticed somewhere that all great world history facts and people so to speak twice occur. He forgot to add: the one time as tragedy, the other time as farce" Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte .

      by NY brit expat on Mon Dec 17, 2012 at 06:58:18 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  so (0+ / 0-)

    "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. "

    vs.

    "The Reagan Revolution was a political amalgamation that combined racist southern land owners with the Goldwater Libertarian/Buckley New Right movement and the New Evangelical movement.  Reagan is often credited with having saved capitalism. In the process he managed to co-opt the laissez faire free market movement into obscurity"

    We're seeing a battle between two extremes, with southern racism being the primary driver that shifts however the cultural winds blow

  •  NYC Socialist Highwater Mark (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    NY brit expat, JayRaye

    That would be the elections of November 1917 when Meyer London made a decent showing in the mayoralty race, a few aldermen were elected, as was a municipal court judge, probably the first democratically elected Socialist judge in the world.

    Elena Kagan's undergraduate thesis at Princeton describes the retreat from this point and is worth reading.

    Last winter, I spent some time reading through the microfilm of the NY Call, a Socialist daily newspaper, from 1917 to 1920.  At some point, I'd like to go back and read from 1920 to 1923 when it ceased publication.  Many of the events I was reading about in the library day by day echoed events that were still happening in 2012.

    The crackdown on free speech and civil liberties after the US entered WWI was quite severe and led to the formation of the ACLU by Roger Baldwin and others.  EV Debs was imprisoned for speaking against war and the draft more months than the US army fought and ran for President in 1919 from the Atlanta Federal prison.  He got over a million votes.  The Palmer Raids and forced deportations after WWI were even more brutal.

    It would be interesting to discover more about the People's Councils that the Socialist Party organized across the US during that time.  One of the leaders was Scott Nearing of later homesteading and NE farming fame.

    Lots of history to discover if we look.

    Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at solarray.

    by gmoke on Sun Dec 16, 2012 at 10:58:19 PM PST

    •  Correction (0+ / 0-)

      It was Morris Hillquit instead of Meyer London who ran for Mayor of NYC on the Socialist ticket in 1917.  He got about 120,000 votes, officially, if I recall correctly.

      Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at solarray.

      by gmoke on Wed Dec 19, 2012 at 09:38:07 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Good diary overall (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    NY brit expat, JayRaye

    I'm afraid the following is in error though.

    The first socialists to arrive were German Social Democrats escaping Bismark's repression that began in 1878.
    Actually, the first German Radicals and Socialists arrived in America before the Civil War. They were refugees from the failed European revolutions of 1848 and were known as the Radical 48'ers. They played a significant part in the events of the civil war.

    It was German Home Guardsunder the Command of Capt. Nathaniel Lyon (acting on a secret commission from President Lincoln) who defeated attempts by secessionist militia to seize the Federal Arsenal in St. Louis and so stymied the effort to take Missouri into the Confederacy.

    A secondary point. Regardless of what one thinks of Norman Thomas' brand of Socialism, he remained a prominent public figure in the US until his death in 1968. It was only after this and particularly following the election of Reagan that Socialism was completely excluded from the public political discourse.

    Nothing human is alien to me.

    by WB Reeves on Mon Dec 17, 2012 at 01:49:58 AM PST

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