Why We Need Yiddish Socialism Back Again

by Daniel Katz

The remarkable candidacy of Bernie Sanders, an unapologetic socialist, inspired tens of thousands of mostly young supporters to join the Democratic Socialists of America over the last year. This renewed energy in the nation’s largest socialist institution has been a reaction to an assault on the civil liberties, human rights, and economic security on ordinary people by right wing and neoliberal politicians and economic elites. This socialist turn in American politics has strong echoes in the revolutionary movements that emerged in Russia among Jews and other marginalized groups, just as they were beginning to emigrate to the United States in the late 19th century. The peculiar philosophy of Yiddish Socialism, or Yiddishism, that Jews carried with them and refined in the American industrial and political contexts, gave rise to a powerful force of labor and socialist movement activists who were essential to the construction of New Deal, Civil Rights, and Great Society reforms in the middle of the twentieth century. Looking at the conditions under which Yiddish Socialism developed, and how its principles served activists so well as they sought to build radical power among workers of many races and ethnicities, reveals lost lessons that can be applied today as a new movement emerges in the early 21st Century.

After the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881, an event in Russia as momentous as September 11, 2001 would be in the United States, the Czarist regime doubled down on the repression of intellectuals, radicals, and ethnic minorities, that had waxed and waned for more than a century. Russian was the official language of education, government transactions, law, commerce, literature and theater. Jews felt the blows of official repression more than most groups. Without territory of their own, relegated to the western edge of the Empire, all but a small token number of Jews were virtually barred from higher education, from entering middle class professions, and from owning land. Their language, traditional dress, religious practices, and their very presence in public were the targets of ridicule and violent attack. They could not vote, sit on juries, or file suit. And attempts to unionize in the cities were brutally suppressed, as organizers were beaten and killed, jailed and deported, or consigned to the army for years or decades.

It was clear to Jews and revolutionaries from other ethnic groups in Russia that the Czarist economic order was maintained through cultural domination. Russian language speakers and Russian Christian Orthodox church members prevailed in all centers of power, while speakers of other languages and practitioners of other religions were marginalized to one degree or another, relegating some like the Jews to second class citizenship, suffering humiliations and frequent starvation.

Among the tiny group of Jewish intellectuals who did make it to University in the 1860s and 70s, most published in Russian, some in Polish or Ukrainian, even in Hebrew, which was considered a learned language. But almost all felt contempt for Yiddish, the vernacular of uneducated, poor Jewish workers and peasants, until the revolutionary movements began to form among intellectuals from scores of ethnic groups. To resist the ravages of capitalism, revolutionaries of all national cultures began to rally peasants and workers in their own languages, accessing their own cultures, to challenge the cultural domination of the Czarist state. Philosophers and artists who had lasting impact on Jewish and American culture led the movement in the 1880s and 1890s to elevate Yiddish-language culture, as a point of ethnic national pride, resistance, and, eventually, revolution. Playwright S. Ansky traveled the Jewish countryside collecting Chasidic and other Jewish folktales. He later wrote The Dybbuk, the most enduring play of the Yiddish Theater. Fellow playwright Sholem Aleichem wrote stories about Tevye the Dairyman that inspired “Fiddler on the Roof.” And Chaim Zhitlowsky, the most important philosopher of Yiddish Socialism, joined the General Union of Jewish Workers (the Bund), the largest and most important Jewish revolutionary movement in the Russian Empire when it adopted Yiddishism as the principle idiom of revolutionary Judaism.

Zhitlowsky articulated most clearly how the tenets of Yiddish Socialism needed to inform revolutionary movement building. Yiddish Socialism was explicitly class based. Yiddishists understood that capitalists who operated the factories who so severely exploited Jewish labor, were more often Jews themselves. Or that pronouncements from the Czar, including debasements of Jewish culture, were conveyed through Jewish agents of the state. Zhitlowsky argued that revolutionary Jewish leaders needed to steep themselves in ordinary Jewish culture, including religious culture. Ordinary people could only be awakened by the language and imagery they understood. But it also meant conveying all of human thought and endeavor to ordinary people through their own language. Zhitlowsky and others meant to elevate Yiddish and the Jewish people through literature and poetry, science and history. Also, revolutionary leaders of all ethnic groups needed to encourage leaders from other ethnic groups to steep themselves in their cultures. All people needed to be assured that a revolutionary movement would not marginalize and vilify their cultures as the Czar has done. And that people would be encouraged to explore their cultures within a revolutionary context. This is the concept of national cultural autonomy. Much more than just a toleration for ethnic difference, it is an insistence that difference is a strength that should be cultivated.

Chaim Zhitlovsky. Source.

Zhitlowsky was also an agrarian socialist. He believed that the deprivations of urban life forced upon workers migrating for industrial jobs and the poverty of rural Jewish villages, limited by law from acquiring enough land to subsist reasonably well, could only be alleviated through unfettered access to land. Though never more than a minority position within the larger Yiddishist worldview, agrarian socialism influenced Jewish institutions of education, recreation, and cultural exploration. Through the middle of the twentieth century, some of the most important spaces in which Jews continued to propagate important tenets of Yiddish socialism in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere happened in summer camps that sought to realize some of the vision of rural communal utopias.

At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Jews fled the persecution of the Russian Empire for the United States and other places. As pogroms — violent attacks on Jewish communities instigated or tolerated by government forces — increased, so did Jewish immigration. Of the more than 2 million Russian Jews that came to the United States from 1880 until 1920, two thirds came after 1900, when violence peaked, culminating in the 1905 Russian Revolution. Among the Jewish refugees, thousands of young revolutionaries came to New York and other established Jewish communities, founding and reinvigorating established institutions.

An Arbeter Froy inked and colored by caucus member Sarah Elizabeth Hartman. Background text is drawn from the song “Dem Arbeter’s Kamf” by Morris Rund

New York City had always been home to the largest Jewish population in the United States. By 1920, New York City had the largest Jewish population in the world outside the Russian Empire. The American context before World War I differed from that of Russia. Jews had greater citizenship rights. Notwithstanding occasional police violence during strikes in Northern cities like Lawrence in 1912 and Patterson in 1913, there tended to be more freedom to demonstrate in the streets and even strike with less fear of state reprisals in New York City. Middle class reformers and politicians were more responsive, and Jews were able to elect some of their own to state office through World War I. But the ravages of capitalism were familiar to these Jews who had to suffer harsh living conditions in cramped and fetid tenements, low wages and long hours hunched over sewing machines, and rampant disease. As in Russia, Jewish workers, in the garment industry among others, were largely exploited by Jewish bosses, in the sweatshops of tenement apartment/workshops and the modern factories like Triangle Shirtwaist factory, site of the famous fire in 1911. So, revolutionary sights in the US tended to be set on direct conflict with capital than in overthrowing the state.

Jewish socialist institutions grew from the 1880s through the Progressive Era into a powerful movement because of the relative freedoms to explore socialist ideas and the sheer concentration and number newly arrived immigrants. When the American Federation of Labor, formed in 1886, proved reluctant to organize newly arrived Russian Jewish immigrants, Jews formed the United Hebrew Trades in 1888 to organize unions themselves. Their efforts were supported by the Yiddish language Jewish Daily Forward, established in New York City in 1897, the same year the Bund formed in Vilnius, Lithuania. Consciously mimicking the popular style of newspapers like William Randolph Hearst’s New York American, the Forward served up high doses of gossip, advice, sports and entertainment news, while at the same time serving as a bulletin board for union meetings, strike news, calls for boycotts, and other calls to mobilize Jewish workers and their supporters to action. In 1892, the Workmen’s Circle formed to offer sick and burial benefits to members. The fraternal society grew to be more as members engaged in strikes and other community actions. Workmen’s Circle meetings, and particularly the educational programs, served as organizing spaces as well.

When the “1905 Generation” began settling in to the Lower East Side of Manhattan and other neighborhoods, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) was just a few years old. Still largely an amalgam of a handful of skilled tailors unions, it was a union of men who viewed women as temporary helpers unworthy of union protection or living wages. But as young Jewish Russian revolutionaries began to populate the ranks of garment workers, women like Rose Schneiderman, Pauline Newman, Clara Lemlich, and Fannia Cohn, the order was upended. In 1909, 20,000 mostly Jewish women rose up to demand the ILGWU recognize them as members and support the strike they initiated. Overnight the union was transformed through the efforts of a revived and more militant socialist movement. The Forward advertised strike meetings and kept the public updated with news of picket line battles and arrests. Bundist clubs and Workmen’s Circle branches rallied members. The United Hebrew Trades and the Socialist Party, formed in 1900, the same year as the ILGWU, raised money and added more bodies and strategic expertise to the picket lines and strike rallies. The massive mobilization of Socialist Jews, along with a smaller but similarly militant Italian workforce, drew the attention of women middle class reformers who joined the picket lines and attracted the popular press.

Rose Schneiderman, at a rally ca. 1910. Via JWA.

With the victory of the Uprising, Russian Jewish women and some men who had been raised within a culture of revolution had a foothold in the ILGWU and the fledgling American labor movement. Among the most important and lasting contributions, Shirtwaist makers began to build educational programs and structures that became the prototype of American labor education. It was a means to uplift workers who were barred or could not afford further education. It was also the vehicle through which Yiddish Socialist principles were conveyed. They built libraries, held classes in Yiddish and English literature, world history, humanist philosophy and socialist economics, and organized dances and excursions, all designed to engage workers as militant activists and intellectuals, and to build a community of trust. And they built Unity House, a rural vacation retreat for members to bond, learn, and explore their ideals. Fannia Cohen, who had been active in Chaim Zhitlowsky’s Socialist Revolutionary Party in Minsk as a young woman, designed and eventually led the international union’s education department programs. But the context shifted from building a revolutionary movement to overthrow the Czar in Russia to building militant unions to confront capitalists at the point of production in the United States.

When workers of other racial-ethnic groups entered the workforce, Yiddish Socialists were ready to appeal to them not just individually, but through their cultures. The presence of a large minority of Italian garment workers was encouraged by factory owners in the hopes of dividing the workforce through suspicion. Solidarity among Jews and Italians was cultivated by Jewish organizers and their Italian allies. Rose Schneiderman, one of the few paid female organizers in any union, began to reach out to Italian community leaders, including Catholic priests, to build support for the union among Italian garment workers who began to enter the industry even before the Uprising of 20,000. Through education and eventually facilities of their own, the ILGWU created spaces for Italians to explore their ethnic heritage in the union context. In 1916 mostly male cloakmakers formed the all Italian Local 48. Three years later, most Italian women could join the Dressmakers Local 89.

By the end of the First World War, the ILGWU had become the 3rd largest union in the American Federation of Labor. But the post-war Red Scare, new aggressive anti-union tactics by garment manufacturers, and bitter conflicts among the fractured left — Socialists, Communists, and Anarchists — throughout the 1920s and into the early 1930s weakened the union significantly. Workers were being left behind in the great economic surge of the decade. But Jewish unions began to build their own banks and insurance companies to help themselves and their members. And they built cooperative housing their members could not otherwise afford.

During this period manufacturers began to hire thousands of black and Puerto Rican workers as strikebreakers, hoping to foment interracial and interethnic discord. In a truly exceptional moment in American labor history, rather than blame and combat the interlopers, the ILGWU developed strategies to turn the strikebreakers into union loyalists. Moreso, at times when Communist Jews had formed parallel unions in the garment industry, they similarly appealed to black workers in particular.

Through a permanent Unity House in the Poconos, the Workmen’s Circle Camp Kinderland, both built in the early 1920s, and the Socialist Party Rand School of Social Science, among other institutions, Yiddish Socialists invited Black and Spanish-speaking workers to multicultural events, such as plays, concerts and social dances, where they also trained in union building. They also supported A. Philip Randolph, who attended the Rand School in the 1910s with garment workers, as he built the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Despite their efforts, the Depression that began in late 1929 devastated the ILGWU, which was nearly bankrupt at the beginning of 1933.

In the fall of 1933, over 100,000 dressmakers in New York City, working for mostly mostly Jewish and some Italian manufacturers, responded to a strike call by the ILGWU which numbered less than 30,000 throughout the country. Within weeks over 4,000 black and 2,500 Spanish-speaking members joined the union, most of whom were concentrated in the Local 22 Dressmakers and the smaller Local 91 Children’s Dressmakers unions. For 15 years or more, Fannia Cohn had worked tirelessly on the international level, sometimes alone and sometimes with her own money to design and promote education programs and propagate the Yiddishist theory of constructing a militant multicultural labor movement built on a foundation of class-based racial-ethnic identities. Education was the vehicle, and every activity was geared toward preparing workers to take direct action. Dance and sports, for example, were meant for social bonding, but also to train workers to be physical with one another in public and to build trust, qualities essential for picket line battles. Local 22 manager, Charles “Sasha” Zimmerman, a Russian-born revolutionary who had been active in the IWW and the Communist Party before being expelled, enacted Fannia Cohn’s program to the greatest effect.

An ILGWU women’s basketball team from New Jersey, ca. 1937. Source.

Local 22 created hundreds of classes in trade union theory, history, economics, Marxist philosophy, and language study. There were classes to train workers how to maintain the union on the shop level and more advanced training for those interested in higher union leadership. They organized theater and dance groups, orchestras and choirs. And they sponsored athletic leagues that welcomed teams from other Jewish socialist organizations such as the Workmen’s Circle. The union opened neighborhood branches throughout the city, where members could choose to attend membership meetings and, with their families engage in a plethora of activities. Most notably, the union opened a branch in West Harlem for blacks and one in East Harlem for Spanish speakers. As in other branches, members were encouraged to explore their racial-ethnic music, dance, food, and histories within the context of a militant union movement.

By 1936, when the dressmakers in New York were facing their first contract negotiations after the strike that increased the size of the union seven-fold and its coffers many factors higher, the ILGWU were a well established political force in the city, state and on the national level. It was in the garment district, thought that demonstrations of their power was most critical. The union flexed their considerable muscles in a number of ways. They promoted activism and leadership by members of all racial-ethnic groups within in the union, and boasted about the 32 nationalities that made up the membership. They showed, through their publications, parades, concerts held in Town Hall, pageants held in Madison Square Garden, and many, many sports tournaments held in public parks and school gymnasiums that they could regularly turn out many thousands of union members, their families, and their allies. Those allies included members of other unions, but also members of institutions associated with the socialist party. And they had the support of leaders and institutions in the black, Puerto Rican and other communities with members in the ILGWU. For the first time in its history, the ILGWU settled a major contract in its favor without striking. The contractors were convinced they would lose in the end.

David Dubinsky, president of the ILGWU, leveraged the street power of the union to make demands on politicians they supported, most notably Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR welcomed Dubinsky and other socialists into his New Deal coalition, which secured historically encompassing legislation to protect workers in many industries: the right to form unions and have contracts enforced; and minimum wages and maximum hours. For the next forty years, the ILGWU would be a major player in expanding the social safety net, making demands on the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations to enact labor reforms, including health and safety legislation, civil rights, environmental protections, fair housing, and access to higher education.

The welfare state, such as it was in the United States, is crumbling. The union-negotiated welfare system, through employer benefits, is crumbling. American public education is failing. Housing is in crisis. None of this is an accident. Part and parcel of the plan to unravel the social safety net, sponsored by the Koch Brothers and Trump allies, is to revive simmering hatreds for unions, ethnic minorities, Muslims, civil rights, and democracy itself. We need to renew our demands on the state for guaranteed basic income, universal healthcare, good schools, and decent affordable housing, yes. But in the meantime, we need to begin to provide these social goods for ourselves. We need to begin again to build our own cooperative housing and groceries; and we need to provide for our healthcare and old age. None of that can happen without rebuilding a socialist and labor movement predicated on membership by all workers, their families, and their communities, celebrating their racial-ethnic difference. That is how our ancestors built solidarity and martialed the power to make their demands on the state.


Daniel Katz is Interim Associate Director for Workers Education at the Joseph S. Murphy Institute at the City University of New York, where he teaches labor history. Dr. Katz received his Ph.D. in American History at Rutgers University, after a career as a union organizer. He was the former provost of the National Labor College. Dr. Katz is author of All Together Different: Yiddish Socialists, Garment Workers, and the Labor Roots of Multiculturalism (NYU Press). He is also co-editor of Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in America (The New Press)

Join Daniel Katz for a talk on Yiddishist Socialism on Tuesday, October 24th, at 6:30pm at the Workmen’s Circle in New York. RSVP Here.