<h3>The Roots of Jewish Labor: Will the Vision Be Renewed?
Jews, Marxism and the Worker’s Movement

Paul Buhle

The Roots of Jewish Labor: Will the Vision Be Renewed?

First Published: genesis 2, February 1983.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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As of February, 1983, the Jewish Daily Forward becomes a weekly. So ends an era. Continuous since 1897, the Daily Forward carried until a few years ago the slogan on its masthead, “Workingmen of all countries, Unite.” The significance had long since ceased to be much more than symbolic – but that symbol carried a mighty weight in the history of American labor.

The Forward’s perennial rival on the Left, the Morgn Freiheit, has also gone weekly, its Communist past a prelude to democratic socialism and hopes for a Middle-East two-state solution. The Freie Arbeter Shtimme, oldest of the radical papers and still ardently anarchist, closed its doors forever in 1977. A few magazine-size Yiddish labor-radical publications remain, the social democratic Veker, the Poale Zionist Yiddishe Kempfer, the Bund’s Unzer Tseit. But with the passing of the Daily Forward, the whole world of Yiddish has shrunk. For a quarter-century “the Jewish labor movement” has been mostly a memory; now the memory is fading away.

Contemporary events throw a flashlight upon the pioneer times of Jewish labor in the U.S. Almost exactly a century ago, Jews participated in their first important strike, and leafletters appeared with warnings against those Hamens who, now in capitalist clothes, perpetuated the suffering of Israel’s people. Abe Cahan, a young revolutionary socialist (or anarchist – the distinctions blurred then) fresh from Europe took his personal reputation in his hands by proposing that agitation be conducted in Yiddish.

What a thought! Russian-born intellectuals shared with German Jews disdain for the “mongrel” language, considered ipso facto corruption even if Jews had used the vernacular for centuries of European existence. Cahan stuck to his guns. By 1890, a quality Yiddish socialist paper took the field in New York; its fierce anarchist rival appeared the same year. Both carried the key signature of the Jewish radical movement: a thirst for culture, not high culture alone but a truly rich people’s culture; and zealous belief in the certainty of the revolutionary millennium.

Glorious verse from the famous Yiddish poets – Morris Winchevsky, Morris Rosenfeld, David Edelshtot and Joseph Bovshover – greeted the readers, often from the first column. Literary classics appeared in translation. The papers brought the gospel of labor into the neighborhoods. Socialist and libertarian visions stood at the center of the Jewish working people’s aspiration for self-improvement and ultimate liberation.

The Cry of the Uprooted

The character of the journalism speaks volumes about the influence of Jewish labor upon the Jewish community and wider society. It emerged hardly a generation away from the intrusion of an industrializing and secularizing outside world upon the sleepy, seemingly ageless shtetl. It answered the cry of the uprooted, gave many among them the sense of unified strength and courage that labor movements have provided other workers in the U.S. only fitfully and for short periods. It recognized the narrow limits of the ghetto, the reality that a general strike in the garments trades would hardly bring industrial capitalism to its knees. And it searched out allies at home and abroad almost as a twin instinct with its Jewish protectiveness, failing if anywhere on the side of self-sacrifice and overgenerosity.

Jewish labor soon had its own forms of corruption, encouraged by (and in turn encouraging) a cynicism toward “the goyim.” But it also contained its quota of idealists by whatever labels. Despite their troubles and errors, they sounded the alarm repeatedly, for unionization, industrial unions, progressive labor politics. So long as Jewish labor existed in force, the center of American Jewish life tilted albeit often grudgingly toward the Left.

The creation of the Forward is itself a parable in the problems of coalition and the limits of Jewish labor radicalism. Winchevsky, zeyde of socialist Yiddish journalism since his founding of the Arbeter Freind in London some years earlier, broke with the sectarian Socialist Labor Party because it refused cultural autonomy to the Jewish Socialist press. The issue could not have been more fundamental: no autonomy, no prerogative to explain Socialism in a Jewish way, by the lights of the religious and secular traditions which gave Jewish working people and other Jews a special sense of self in the world. Winchevsky’s break helped impel some of the talented journalists toward a better socialist press, an independent press. Cahan and a coterie of collaborators stepped into the gap. The Forward was born.

These were the great years of immigration. And Cahan, who learned (or re-learned) his newspaper trade from the American commercial press, knew that a Socialist paper had to reach broad masses of Yiddish speakers. In full control of the paper after a hiatus of several years, he created in the Forward something no one could have imagined anywhere, least of all in Jewish radical circles: a yellow press loosely connected to the Left.

Cahan mixed screaming headlines of urban crimes, advice columns to the immigrant family, trashy fiction along with socialist editorials. He crusaded against the terrible sweatshop conditions which produced tragedies like the Triangle Fire; he campaigned around the strikes that broke out in the garments trades after 1909. But he had the pessimism of the fictional protagonist in his own monumental novel, The Rise of David Levinsky, the allrightnik, prosperous businessman immigrant who realizes somewhere along the way he has lost his Old World identity and thence his soul. A sort of Jewish Captain Ahab, we might say today, because for him, too, the world is blank, ultimately meaningless, so that the values he seeks to impose upon it become increasingly his own vain whims, powered by the inhuman logic of Capitalism.

By the time the Forward reached toward 200,000 readers – ten times that of any other socialist daily in the U.S. and as much as any weekly labor or socialist publication – the die had been cast. A compromise had been made not alone with the inevitability of assimilation (and Cahan perpetually predicted the eclipse of Yiddish) but with the inevitability of a business civilization.

Imagination Resisting Reality

Such pessimism tended toward self-fulfilling prophecy. Here the great weakness of Jewish labor could be found, and the deadening weight helped provoke both a conservative individualism (along with its mate, undisguised chauvinism) and a culturally nihilistic radicalism. If nothing could really be changed, getting ahead became an all-embracing preoccupation, so much so that idealists fled the community entirely. Little did the actors in such personal dramas realise how clearly they came to caricature qualities they had learned to deplore most among gentiles. Yiddish fictionalists and playwrights early on drew stark portraits of the outcome. Forerunners of Norman Podheretz, Martin Peretz and Albert Shanker stalked the Yiddish stage and even the literary columns of the Forward.

Despite their nominal radicalism and their real continuing links to labor, empowered figures of Cahan’s generation ultimately counseled the organized Jewish labor movement to perpetual patience in a country of politically backward gentiles. The next generation, “1905ers” fresh from the Russia of Soviets and Pogroms, could not accept the implications. They regarded themselves as un-assimilable, and they took pride in a Yiddishkeit that seemed to Cahan utterly romantic.

Like the sweatshop poet Morris Rosenfeld – placed upon the back shelf by Cahan as a worn-out “Teardrop Millionaire” repeating his stories of workers’ miseries ad infinitum – these elemental Jews looked upon their lives as travels within the galut, not a geographic exile so much as a spiritual exile from some cooperative or socialist homeland that existed in their ideals at Jews. They asserted their identity against all the odds. And as the literary critic Shmuel Niger says about the Yiddishists, “The nearer the army of denyers came, the stronger grew the boat of the believers. Belief became the counterattack of creative man against the spirit of destruction. Imagination resisted reality,” a reality of assimilation, bourgeoisification, America as Ama Reka, lost souls.

Was the fight futile? Looking back, we are too readily seduced into an easy judgement. Who knew that the Russian Revolution would end at the borders of Western Europe and turn sour within? Or that the Yiddish communities of Eastern Europe could not be saved, a permanent base for Yiddishkeit?

At the time, young women of New York’s ILGWU Local #22 who insisted upon a “union with a soul” were told (we are slyly reminded by anti-communist historian Ben Stolberg) that they really needed to be taken out for a good fuck. Little groups like them formed the nucleus of a Left challenge to union leadership already grown bureaucratic, not primarily because of their fanatic faith in Russia but because they believed Jewish idealism could carry their institutions forward to a liberating future.

The anarchist literary critic Baruch Rivkin later called Yiddish the subjective homeland of the people with no geographic homeland – a true insight. Communist-oriented radicals took up the demand from the Poale Zionists for Yiddish-language schools. Soon they boasted the finest summer camps, choirs, experimental workers’ theatre. Not a milieu that tempted, perhaps, the majority of Jewish workers. But with Progressive Yiddishkeit as a fighting slogan, a center for belief in a special Jewish contribution to the emancipation of the working classes.

A Labor Culture for All Workers

It would be equally facile to ignore the contribution of milder and more assimilated Socialists, of Anarchists, and of other class-conscious Jews to the labor movement. Jewish Socialism had provided a basis in union education for a majority of labor activists in the needle trades, a crucial alliance with Italian-American workers, and an inspiration for the 1910s union movement at lar0ge to push toward the limits of contemporary possibilities.

Here for the first time, individual Jewish radicals went off to “gentile” sectors to provide leadership as well. Jewish Communists of the younger generation led the trek out of the “radical” neighborhoods into the far-flung industries moving toward unionization in the 1930s; Jewish radicals of other groups, albeit in smaller numbers, also played a role in virtually every corner of the labor movement. Since the bland 1920s, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers had urged a “labor culture” for all workers; in the exciting years of organization, the ACW and ILGWU spearheaded the formation of leisure, education and recreational organizations which helped make unionism a way of life. The garment unions, along with political radicals and other unionists, formed the American Labor Party in New York, closest approximation to a viable third-party movement outside Minnesota. The Amalgamated also poured its money and energies into the Southern textile workers’ drive, a doomed struggle which would have drastically altered the geopolitical character of American society.

Grand accomplishments by any standard, “reformist” or “revolutionary,” these might have remained a monument to Jews in the labor movement as the Jewish working class receded into the past. If the varieties of labor radicals tore at each other with devastating ferocity after the Second World War, undercutting much of what they had created, it was perhaps because all sides realized that the accomplishment had not been enough.

The dreams for a social transformation would be shattered amidst the business counter-offensive and the Cold War. Russia–an imaginary Workers’ Paradise or a False Messiah – displaced practical issues. No one squarely and practically faced the issue of changing neighborhoods and changing workforces. Civil Rights the aging radicals supported with great vigor and idealism in the South, in the character of a Martin Luther King, Jr., who seemed so much like a Gene Debs or a classic Jewish visionary.

But they had no easy answers for the bitterness and cynicism of newer workers for the unions which had been built at tremendous sacrifice, but which had become distant and bureaucratic. The truth is the system had outlasted their strategies and their social base.

A Stubborn Legacy

In the process, something of vital significance was lost. New Leftists, children and grandchildren of heroic militants, had no ears for the old stories, and that hurt the veterans worse almost than the McCarthy Era. The tactics of organizing a block or a factory, learned by long experience, would have helped young activists; but even more the attitude, the sense of collectivity and of faith in ordinary people, should have been transferred. Not only the condition of the Palestinians and the Maoist zeal for the Third World caused a confusion of identity and even guilt among young Jewish idealists: but the lack of contact which denied so many the intimate knowledge of the self-conscious radical Jew.

The failure of the Old Left, like their blanket atheism and intolerance for religious idealists, took a toll upon their descendants as the potential progressive religious connections reappeared only sporadically and among small circles for a long time. For too many the old pessimism, turned on its head, became an exuberant and then destructive nihilism. Fears for Israel, the upsurge of a Jewish neo-conservatism, played upon these emotions. The golden chain, which passed from the prophets through the ghetto labor movements, had snapped.

And yet something remains, just as stubborn as those brave octogenerians who will not cease their labor-radical publications until their final days. Practically any senior citizens’ militancy offers a living symbol of Jewish will over physical weakness, of determination over pessimistic detachment. This is almost the final contribution of Jewish labor, a significant and perhaps decisive effort by the shunted, impoverished and un-prestigious age-bracket to resist victimization and to turn the rightwing vendetta against social responsibility into a crusade for a higher sense of democratic order.

The final contribution is yet greater. For the Jewish labor movement could not have been created in the spirit of mere self-interest, the strikes could have been successful and unions never organized if the activists calculated only the short-term interests of themselves, their neighborhoods, their Jewish identity. Rather, Jewishness and even class consciousness were meaningful precisely because such self-identification raised the possibility among ordinary folk of the wider promise that a future, cooperative order held.

If the Jews and the world are to survive, the memory of Jewish labor will be renewed, the Jewishness and the humanity of those radicals whatever their affiliation will return to mind. Without that sense of continuity, no religious or national enthusiasm, no prestige and financial security will halt the alienation and hold back impending disaster; with the continuity, new generations can look toward the renewal of the age-old Messianic vision in fresh terms, knowing always the certainty of the ground they stand on.

* * *

Paul Buhle directs the Oral History of the American Left at Tamiment Library, New York University. He is working on a collection of Moshe Nadir translations, and a book on Yiddkhkeit in America.