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A Collective Past Within Us

Paul Buhle teaches history at Brown University. He is the author of A Very Dangerous Citizen: Abraham Lincoln Polonsky and the Hollywood Left (University of California Press, 2001); and co-author, with Mike Alewitz, of Insurgent Images: The Agitprop Murals of Mike Alewitz (Monthly Review Press, forthcoming).

Hadassa Kosak, Cultures of Opposition: Jewish Immigrant Workers, New York City, 1881-1905 (SUNY Press, 2000), 163 pages, $50.50 cloth, $17.95 paper.

The scholarly (and popular) subject of American Jewish involvement in the labor movement and the political left is old and familiar, but due for renewal in every generation. And for good political as well as scholarly reasons: every new generation of conservatives (or what we might call Imperial Liberals) seeks to make the radical connections into an immigrant hangover at best, while on the other side scholars dig deeper into the archives for fresh evidence of socialism as a founding faith of the Lower East Side ghetto.

Hadassa Kosak makes a unique contribution because she has more effectively than anyone previous ventured into “transnational” history. For generations, official historians of needle trade unions boasted that current bureaucrats began their life’s work fighting against the Tsar. Sometimes it was even true, but the intent of the myth was to fend off in advance any implication that a David Dubinsky (boss of the old International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and veritable godfather of the AFL–CIA connection) might himself harbor a certain Tsarist impulse. This view of the past fixed on individuals and frequently depicted the Jewish communities of the Pale as a solid mass of persecuted beings, sharing their agonies in solidarity. For Kosak, it would be closer to say that the opposite is true: the struggle against American capitalists found its origins in the struggle against the all-powerful and demonstrably undemocratic shtetl merchants and rabbinate.

The picture is inevitably complicated by the growing waves of Eastern European anti-Semitism. But it was the internal decay of historic Jewish communities and the acquiescence of elites to oppression which prompted youngsters to form first their own religious congregations, then their own reading circles and socialist clubs. Artisans pushed downward into poverty might hit upon a socialistic solution (since Jews by themselves obviously could not transform society), or emigrate to the New Land or both. As the late historian Herbert Gutman once quipped, his father-in-law immigrated, breathed the fresh air of the new world, and gathered the courage to declare his socialism for the first time.

Suffering terribly in the Lower East Side (and elsewhere) during the depressed 1890s, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe again found the heads of the Jewish community less than helpful, often not even particularly sympathetic to their plight. The wealthy Yehudim, as they called the German-American Jews, doled out some charity assistance but shunned them socially and mocked their folkish culture (the hateful term “kike” was coined by the same Germans, who notoriously warned them not to be “so kikey,” i.e ., not to embarass all Jews by talking with their hands). A riot or rebellion of quarantined immigrants on Wards Island in 1882 may have predicted several generations of strikes by Jews against the Jewish owners of sweatshops.

Kosak makes a powerful argument that charitable associations actively collaborated with clothing manufacturers in supplying what were expected to be servile workers, willing to labor without complaint for the lowest wages imaginable. Synagogues and fraternal societies (the Landsmanshaften, associations based on connections to the villages of the Old Country) had an ambiguous role in these matters, and not only because the same buildings were so often used for multiple purposes. Later historians, proud of Jewish traditions, liked to point to “labor rabbis” who supported unions and strikes, but these were (especially before the 1910s) almost as rare as “labor priests.” Most religious authorities, especially those above the neighborhood level, supported the interests of the employing classes that paid their expenses, and declared socialism to be the devil’s work.

The Landsmanshaften, by bringing together all classes (of men, that is) from Europe, reintroduced familiar hierarchies, occasionally expelling members who went out on strike. The resulting rift prompted the formation in 1892 of the Arbeter Ring (Workmen’s Circle), a socialistic sickness-and-death benefit society created along the lines of the German-American socialist societies, themselves sometimes led by progressive German-Jewish immigrants active in powerful unions like the brewery workers. The Arbeter Ring evolved into a social and educational movement of the Jewish working and lower-middle class, seeking to uplift and enlighten themselves while holding to the vision of a cooperative order.

The role of the Jewish skilled workers in all this is especially interesting precisely because it is so contradictory. The formation of the United Hebrew Trades in 1888 was resisted by Samuel Gompers (a Dutch-born Jew and pronounced racist who led resistance to further immigration, including Jewish immigration) as inherently divisive. Within a decade, the same UHT became a stronghold of Gompers’ AFL conservatives against the Socialist Labor Party; in later decades it grew into the ferociously anti-Industrial Worker of the World, anticommunist, and quietly racist preserve of the Jewish labor aristocracy. How did it happen?

Socialists committed enough blunders to give the conservatives needed openings, mostly out of a mistaken belief that capitalism was on the skids and that impending crisis demanded urgent political mobilization. But this familiar formulation may be looking at the end result rather than the internal causes. Kosak points to the cloakmakers’ strike of 1890, when unskilled cutters continued striking, demanding that scab workers be fired, while the more highly paid skilled cutters (disproportionately German-Jewish and Irish) returned to work. A few years later, the unskilled workers’ erstwhile leader, anarchist Joseph Barondess, facing numerous legal charges, himself capitulated to Gompers and became a faithful servant of craft unionism. In short, the atmosphere of repression and intimidation prompted some toward the safe way out.

By the end of the 1890s, unskilled needle trades workers had no unions, and the emerging union leaders, still nominal socialists, simply wrote off the unskilled, especially young women workers. Only in the Jewish-American world, it is fair to say, did a heroic struggle of women workers (in the “Uprising of the Ten Thousand,” the shirtwaist strike of 1909) confront bureaucrats who swore by their socialist texts that such workers could not become good unionists, and certainly could not be allowed to lead the unions. Out of that division—heightened by the fresh immigration of young, unskilled Jewish workers after 1905—came the most concentrated Communist base anywhere within American labor. Ironically, some of the bold socialist leaders of the 1880s–1890s had become remarkably like the old Yehudim, haughty, powerful, and downright comfortable with capitalism.

Kosak closes her study with the observation that while historians have often pointed to the “modern” and “forward-looking” character of Jewish unions, in fact the unions represented in many ways an old communalism, rejecting the principles of private appropriation—even when adopted by leading Jewish community members. This is an important summing up, similar to the late Raphael Samuels’ speculation that the sources of socialism are centuries deeper in collective human activity and cultural tradition than Marxists usually recognize.

Do we benefit by grasping at a truth now generations further away from ourselves? It’s a good question and an important one for socialism’s future. The West Indian novelist Wilson Harris insists that such traditions have not really gone away; that we harbor unconscious remnants of the collective past within us, antidotes to the narrowing nationalism, racism, and greedy use of global resources. This is surely an idealistic reading, but it helps explain the altogether unexpected outburst, twenty years ago, of a highly-charged, socialistic Liberation Theology current in Latin America and elsewhere. It also helps to explain my own radical students these days, Jewish teenagers from middle-class homes who nevertheless seek a life for themselves recreating the possibilities of socialism by working against global sweatshops. In my view, these are two sides of the same important equation, a reaching out across an abyss of social and economic differences, toward the one unifying theme still meaningful.


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