The First Jewish Trade Union
Jews, Marxism and the Worker's Movement

Kalman Marmor

The First Jewish Trade Union

First Published: Morning Freiheit, October 2, 1983.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Marxist Internet Archive as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

Kalmon Marmor (1879-1956) was a noted progressive Yiddish writer and historian, and a regular contributor to the pages of the Morning Freiheit.

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Two tasks faced the Jewish Socialist Society of London soon after its formation in 1876: (1) to gather around itself all Jewish socialist elements in London; (2) to organize the London Jewish workers for the class struggle. The execution of both tasks met with difficulties.

The Jewish Socialist Society had decided that its membership was to be composed entirely of workers. But it soon became apparent that there were candidates also among poor peddlers, glaziers, clerks and even among small employers.

At the meeting on June 24, 1876, the question was fully discussed, and the votes were almost equally divided. Finally it was decided to admit office workers, wage and piece workers, but no employers or peddlers.

A difficult problem was created by those workers who became bosses after joining the Society, but who were willing to continue to fight on the side of the working class. Citizen Lazar Goldenberg and a number of others were of the opinion that these bosses should retain their membership, but insisted that these bosses give preference to their comrades in the Society when they took on workers. But in the admission of new members, the Society remained strictly proletarian.

The main question to which the first Jewish socialist organization devoted itself at its very first meeting was the organization of the Jewish clothing workers. Only one member, Georg Saper, maintained that a socialist organization should concern itself preferable with self-study and with propaganda among the intelligentsia. He was also the only one to propose that the labor union should not be an industrial union, but a federation of independent unions of separate trades (craft unionism).


The membership, however, was opposed to Saper’s position and agreed overwhelmingly to organize a “mixed organization of all workers.” Saper then asked whether the Society had any right to organize a trade union. It was a revolutionary and socialist organization. How could it organize a union, with sick benefit funds, which might not ever altogether agree with the program of the Society?

The secretary, Arnold Lieberman, replied that according to the first point of the Society’s rules, “to unite the workers for struggle against their oppressors,” the Society was obligated to organize the workers into unions. Trade unionism was therefore in harmony with the principles of socialism.

There ensued a debate whether to work for the building of the socialist organization or the trade union; whether to issue an agitational leaflet in which to inform the workers of the policies of socialism and thereby build the Society, or print a call to the workers to unite in a union; or perhaps first of all to call the workers to a public meeting. It was suggested that the Society “could properly print two leaflets if the treasury would allow it.” A mass meeting was in preparation for several months. The members of the Society were well aware of the unsuccessful attempts at organizing a clothing workers union. They therefore approached this task very carefully. Every detail was thoroughly discussed in advance.

A proposal from Goldstein not to admit bosses to the meeting was defeated. It was pointed out that according to British law anyone had a right to come to any open meeting even if it had a special character. “That’s why it is better that we don’t set conditions that can’t be carried out.”

By secret vote, the Society selected Citizen Goldenberg as chairman and Citizen Saper as secretary of the meeting. Goldstein, Weiner, Rosenthal, Stone, Rabinowitch, Lieberman, Goldenberg and Saper volunteered as speakers. Goldstein withdrew a week later because he knew he had no influence on the London workers and therefore feared his appearance “may harm” the whole thing.

Saper proposed to invite the socialist organizations of London. Goldenberg and Lieberman spoke against it because at a public meeting where “anyone has a right to come, no one should be invited officially.”

Goldenberg agreed “the organization cannot invite, but every member can privately invite his acquaintances and friends.”

Saper also proposed to charge a small admission fee. Another member proposed a collection, leaving it to each to give as much as he wished. Lieberman was against both proposals, because the enemies would say the Society was making money out of the meeting. “We must show the world that we work only for our ideas and bear the costs ourselves.”

After a brief discussion, it was decided not to charge an admission fee. The small group of socialist workers themselves covered the costs (15 shillings, barely four dollars, for the hall, 12 shillings for printing 1,000 leaflets and an additional 18 pence, about 35 cents, for “incidentals”).


On Saturday, August 19, a week before the meeting, members of the first Jewish socialist organization spent the day distributing the call. The minutes of the Jewish Socialist Society report that many workers did not want to take the leaflet at first. They were afraid it was published by missionaries. Everyone had to be told individually that “it was a Jewish paper, published by Jewish workers to their comrades, in order to find the means to improve conditions of the poor Jewish workers.” Only after several hundred copies of the leaflet had been distributed did the workers eagerly take them and even run after the distributors to get copies. “Several workers from the crowd” offered to distribute these statements among their friends. The bosses were “very angry,” and “fought vigorously” against the establishment of a ”labor organization.”

The report concludes with the observation that “the conflict between workers and bosses immediately expressed itself sharply.”

That same evening, after the distribution, the Society devoted itself to last-minute preparations for the public meeting. Weiner undertook to count the “guests who entered” the hall. Stone wanted to know whether women could also come to the meeting.

He was informed that “anyone who wants to can come.”


According to the records of the Jewish Socialist Society, the meeting was a great success. An audience of “several hundred people” attended. The meeting began at 8:45 p.m. There were also present a representative of the English trade unions, several members of the London International Communist Educational Society (to which Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels then belonged) and several members of the Russian Socialist-Revolutionary paper, Vperiod, among them its editor, Peter Lavrov.

Lazar Goldenberg, the chairman, stated the socialists wanted to free the working class from the domination of capital, and that the Jewish Socialist Society had called this meeting in order to make clear to the Jewish workers how they could improve their conditions.

The first speaker, Isaac Stone, described the life of the Jewish workers in London. He showed that the division of labor had made the worker the smallest and cheapest part of the machine, to whom no attention was paid. Stone concluded that the words “all Jews are brothers” had become a rotten lie since class divisions had appeared among the Jews. He called upon the workers to unite, and to substitute for that lying slogan a new one, “All workers are brothers.”

Morris Rosenthal presented a history of the clothing industry in Russia and England, specifically in London, and showed that unity was the only defense of the workers against the attack of capital.

Louis Weiner described the development of the guilds in the middle ages and their struggle against the nobility and the machines, the economic revolution resulting from the French Revolution and the rise of capitalist domination, the development of the trade unions, specifically in England and especially since 1851.

Georg Saper spoke in German about the struggle for a decent work-day, the legislation about this in the middle ages and in the nineteenth century. Saper concluded with a call to the workers to establish a society and among other things achieve a ten-hour day.

Lieberman’s speech–the minutes inform us–was interrupted by a “bourgeois” who insisted the speaker had maligned the Chief Rabbi, Dr. Adler. The “bourgeois” demanded the right to speak, but the audience hooted him down, and this caused an uproar.

Arnold Lieberman based his speech on his famous manifesto, “To the Intellectual Jewish Youth,” which he had published that month in Hebrew and Russian. He accused the “Jewish money aristocracy” of responsibility for the persecution of the Jews in East Europe. The full brotherhood of man could be achieved only under the flag of socialism. He also attacked sharply the religious institutions that were being used as a means (or “racket” as it would be known today) to drain the Jewish masses. The poorest bride and groom, for instance, had to pay the “synagogue” (meaning the rabbi) three pounds and ten shillings (close to $18) for a wedding.

His conclusion was that the workers should not permit themselves to be dominated by the rich Jewish community. They should govern themselves, and establish a “workers’ republic” in their internal affairs and not permit themselves to be bossed by an “authority.”

Abraham Goldstein, who three weeks earlier withdrew as a speaker because he had no influence on the workers and his appearance might cause harm, jumped onto a table. With an excited voice he called on the workers to unite. He presented facts to prove how the “work-givers” drain the workers.

The audience became quiet. From its midst a former clothing worker, Town, whom rheumatism had forced to change from needle work to peddling, stepped forth and told those present that when he became sick his boss had remarked: “When a horse drops you take another one. You do the same with a worker.” Town called upon the workers to unite immediately and not to believe that the socialists were missionaries. He knew the organization, he stated, although as a peddler he was not eligible for membership.

The audience was enthusiastic. Eighty workers signed up immediately in the clothing workers union. The chairman’s proposal to meet again between the first and last days of Hanukah (five weeks later) was voted down by the workers. “The audience demands the following Saturday night...” It was agreed that the first meeting of the clothing workers organization would take place in the headquarters of the Jewish Socialist Society in Whitechapel. The meeting adjourned at eleven o’clock. The audience dispersed in full agreement, with the cry: “Hurrah! Down with the bosses!”