First Published: Guardian, September 28, 1988.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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With the demise of the Yiddish-language Morgen Freiheit, whose final issue appeared Sept. 11, a chapter has closed on U.S. communist history.
The Freiheit is not alone. The Lithuanian-language Laisve, for instance, published in the same years, has just sent its readers a special farewell number. Other sturdy remnants of immigrant Bolshevism cling to the edge and plan their eclipse, nurturing precious resources as they have done from their first days.
But the Freiheit is special. No other paper had quite so much influence within U.S. labor and cultural movements. No other ethnic milieu broke ranks with the Communist Party (CPUSA) and declared a sort of Eurocommunist independence, vigorously critical of the Soviet Union on some questions but forcefully opposed to the cold war and adamantly committed to a socialist vision of the future.
The story of the Freiheit takes us back to the complex and contradictory origins of U.S. communism. The unwillingness of European socialist movements to oppose World War 1 led to a virtual collapse of the Second International. The success of the Bolshevik revolution made a Third International inevitable. But in the U.S., complications prevented any simple transfer of revolutionary activists from one movement to another.
The majority of the Socialist Party, including most of its rather bureaucratic and unrevolutionary leadership, adamantly opposed the war. Their brave crusade for peace, and the terrifying conditions of many European nationalities with immigrant relatives in the U.S., accelerated the trend in the party for enrollment of the foreign-born. Simultaneously, an unprecedented strike wave offered radicals of every kind the opportunity to establish industrial unions. Dogged by government repression and committed to parliamentarist strategies, the socialists could not take full advantage of the situation. But the Russian appeal for the immediate formation of communist parties made the decisions and activities of many revolutionaries still more complicated and confusing in the short run.
Two distinct groups, bitterly opposed to each other, fought for leadership of the nascent U.S. communist movement. The Socialist Party’s mass expulsion of Bolsheviks remaining in its ranks, at the 1919 convention, might have created the basis for unity. A belief in imminent revolution, and a savage sectarianism, ruined the opportunity; the creation of an “underground” movement, as occurred 50 years later out of the New Left, virtually invited government spies and also invited the public to see communism as a foreign conspiracy.
The communist movement survived–with the loss of perhaps 80% of left-leaning members within the 1917 Socialist Party–largely because of the foreign-language groups. They held together their base in the working class and a few rural districts. They survived repression and rampant factionalism. They began to publish a new press, around 1922, that increasingly consolidated support through the creation of cultural and economic institutions to aid their constituents. Ironically, they learned to “speak American” earlier and more effectively than most of their English-language counterparts.
The Freiheit and all its foreign-language daily cousins encouraged readers toward a 2-track strategy: On the one hand, they should maintain their own sense of class and cultural collectivity; on the other, they should join in the general class struggle of U.S. workers. It was a difficult line, frequently made more difficult in the 1920s by factional maneuvers within the Comintern, but even more by the difficulty party leaders had of appreciating the immigrant radicals’ unique problems. As with Black nationalism, the CPUSA generally looked upon autonomous ethnic organization as a sort of transition movement at best, but also a perpetual threat to internal order and to a coordinated strategic posture.
Those who stayed within the party–including a cadre of highly skilled and dedicated early leaders–therefore also struggled for a measure of autonomy even while upholding party positions generally. They had to be prepared to pay the cost, as they did especially when some international crisis frightened or drew away the less faithful readers. But accepting this unresolved contradiction, they could still act brilliantly. They pioneered the industrial union agitation by their constituents; they organized the neighborhoods for antifascism, and they elaborated during World War 2 broad democratic movements such as the American Slav Congress, reaching far beyond their own ranks.
They often seemed to be on the verge of great success when pulled back by political crisis–none more dramatically than the Freiheit. At different times, the paper published many of the greatest Yiddish writers in the world, elaborated a choral, theatrical and summer-camp network, rallied rank-and-filers for the furriers and other substantially Jewish trades, helped the Guardian initiate the Rosenberg defense and carried out final, bold crusades for the survival of Yiddish culture. Each time history fooled them, taking away their hard-won gains. Finally, they grew old and isolated.
But they never quit, not even with editor Paul Novick at age 96, until expenses and debts became overwhelming. The Freiheit remained to the end an extremely literate paper, embodiment of its pride in the Yiddish language. It had also achieved the rare quality of fearless, self-critical introspection which the left has too often–and with great harm–denied to itself and to its followers.