The Jewish Progressive Tradition: Examples from Chicago's Labor and Socialist Movements


The 1910 Chicago Garment Workers' Strike (Source: Wikipedia)

We crafted the essay below from personal and historical experiences for a series of talks on Jewish radicalism in the United States. Rather than survey a growing literature on labor and leftwing politics we chose to write about four Jewish radicals representing different twentieth century moments. Our thought was to glean insights(and perhaps inspiration) from reflections upon these four lives.
Subsequent to the lectures given and the article drafts written, Senator Bernie Sanders, a New York/Vermont Jewish progressive, and a socialist,from an immigrant family background has surfaced as a viable candidate for the Democratic Party nomination for president. In many wayshis backgroundand political visionisnot dissimilarfrom that of Hannah Shapiro, Jack Spiegel, Herb March, and Jay Schaffner even though the paths taken by these four differed from Sanders. But as many have suggested the Jewish experience in twentieth century America helped shape sectors of liberal, progressive, socialist, and communist politics. The authors believe the histories can serve to giveempathy toward an understanding of the Sanders presidential campaign as it unfolds.
Jewish radicals have figured prominently in social movements in 20th century America. There is much speculation about the root causes of seeming over-representation of men and women of Jewish background in the politics of labor and the left. This paper will suggest ways in which class, ideology, and ethnicity shaped the social movement activity of Jewish Americans, reflecting upon four cases of activists from the first decade of the twentieth century, the 1930s, the 1960s, and the 1990s, drawn from Chicago narratives.
Hannah Shapiro and the Walkout at Hart, Schaffner and Marx
One hundred years ago, Hannah Shapiro, known as “Annie” among her fellow workers, sewed pants pockets at one of the Hart, Schaffner, and Marx men’s clothing factories in Chicago. She worked 10 hours a day, unless the foreman demanded more pants produced than usual. She earned four cents for every pocket she sewed.[1]
Annie and her parents came from Russia to the United States in 1905 and the family settled on the west side of Chicago. Her father, a former rabbi, earned a modest living teaching Hebrew and Annie, the oldest of eight children, had to go to work to help support the family. She began working when she was 12 and was employed at HSM, when she was 17.
On a bright and sunny day, September 22, 1910, Annie went to work early in the morning. She was saddened to think that she would not leave work until it was dark. Upon arrival, Annie and her fellow workers were informed by the foreman on the floor that the piece rate for each pocket sewed would be cut from four cents to three and three quarter cents. This was the last straw for Annie, who experienced daily indignities at the work place involving work rules and wages. She decided she had had enough and walked off the job.
As she marched down the stairs from the fifth floor, she heard the tramp of many feet. Her fellow workers followed her off the job. Thus, as a result of the spontaneous leadership of Annie Shapiro, the great Hart, Schaffner, and Marx strike of 1910 was launched. Eventually 40,000 workers from job sites around the city would march in solidarity with the HSM workers. Workers would receive support from noted progressive lawyer Clarence Darrow, the Women’s Trade Union League, and after a time, the United Garment Workers Union.
After a month’s general strike, HSM agreed to the establishment of a workers’ grievance committee but refused to recognize a union in the factory. That was to come later with the formation of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, but workers all around the city learned a valuable lesson: the power of the working class comes from solidarity, organization, and action.
Jack Spiegel and Unemployed Councils
Members of the Staley Workers Solidarity Committee had bussed to Decatur, Illinois to show solidarity with locked-out union workers in 1994. At the end of the day, protestors reassembled at the bus to return to Chicago. All were ready to board the bus except Jack Spiegel. Nobody knew were Spiegel was. Before spreading out all along the company grounds to look for Jack, someone suggested that they form a picket line around the bus. They did that and 90 year old Jack Spiegel came running to join the picket line. His comrades knew that wherever there was a picket line, Jack Spiegel would be there.
Spiegel, a child of Polish immigrants in Chicago, joined the Communist Party in 1929, after participating in Marxist study groups and observing the new Soviet Union which promised to create a new kind of world for workers. With the onset of the Great Depression, law school was no longer a possibility so he turned to politics instead. In interviews given to Randi Storch[2] in the 1990s, Spiegel admitted that he had become “overzealous,” “militant,” and “sectarian.” However, he remained proud of his active participation in mobilizations to save workers displaced from their homes and workers denied welfare assistance due to economic crisis. He became a Communist Party leader of the Unemployed Councils movement, working particularly on the North and Northwest sides of Chicago. As a leader of the Shoe Workers Union in Chicago, Spiegel fought corporate efforts to control workers via piecework wages and tried to forestall the outsourcing of manufacturing of shoes to low-wage labor markets that ultimately destroyed shoe and clothing manufacturing in the United States. In a 1972 interview[3] Spiegel warned of the demise of all clothing, textile, and shoe manufacturing in the United States if government refused to tax corporations who shifted their operations overseas. His predictions were prophetic.
Summarizing Spiegel’s lifetime commitment to the left James Janega[4] wrote:
Jack D. Spiegel first became active in demonstrating for labor rights in 1927, when he joined protesters opposed to the executions of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. He was still active as recently as 1994, when union members marched on the A.E. Staley Manufacturing Co. plant in Decatur.
In between, Mr. Spiegel’s life traced the history of the city’s 20th Century labor movement. His longevity earned the spry, 95-year-old man an honored place in Chicago’s socialist bookstores and leftist theaters. It placed him in the forefront of protests and demonstrations that spanned the period and the sobering reflection and restructuring that befell the political left in the last two decades.
Jack Spiegel lived his life committed to putting the policies of the united front into practice through the building of coalitions for economic, social and racial justice, and for peace. Examples of this include: the campaign to save Sacco and Vanzetti; the building of the Unemployed Councils; mobilization of trade unionists in defense of the Scottsboro Boys; organizer and business manager of the United Shoe Workers in Chicago and the Midwest; activist in the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights against HUAC during the McCarthy period; and a labor supporter for the Chicago Freedom Campaign of Martin Luther King. As a co-chair of the Chicago Peace Council and trade unionist he opposed the war in Vietnam. Also, he participated in a public campaign and suit against the Chicago Police Department Red Squad. And as suggested above, Spiegel was rallying support for the striking Staley workers in Decatur, Illinois, when he was over 90 years old.
In the period after the 1967 Six Day War, Jack Spiegel was careful to keep the Chicago Peace Council focused on opposition to the war in Vietnam, while at the same time continuously working to bring rabbis and other religious leaders into the coalition, despite deep differences over Israel, Palestine and the Mideast. He also recognized the need to broaden the peace movement – in support of the people of Chile against fascism, the people of South Africa against apartheid, and the people of both Israel and Palestine for a just peace, and a two-state solution. (Over a period of a few years, Jack distributed, sold or gave away hundreds of copies of George Morris’ CIA and American Labor – The Subversion of the AFL-CIO’s Foreign Policy, and Philip S. Foner’s American Labor and the Indo-China War, both published by International Publishers, the long-time Marxist publishing house that also published works by W.E.B. DuBois, Herbert Aptheker, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Angela Davis and Henry Winston).
Finally, the Shoe Workers had their union hall in Chicago’s Humboldt Park community, home of Chicago’s growing Puerto Rican community; Jack Spiegel was a long-time supporter of Puerto Rican independence, and freedom for Puerto Rican political prisoners. When the shoe industry changed, when the union lost members, before it went into the then Amalgamated Clothing Workers, Jack as part of the merger negotiations insisted that the union hall not be sold, but turned over to the Puerto Rican community, Today it is home to the Ruiz Belvis Community Center.
Herb March and the Building of the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA-CIO)[5]
Herb March grew up in a working class neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. He was raised by parents who were sympathetic to socialism. His father voted for Eugene V. Debs for president. Being around rent strikes and other street actions in the neighborhood, March was exposed to the public meetings organized by radicals who would later build the Communist Party USA. He eventually joined the Young Communist League (YCL). The visible presence of the left and the developing sentiment that “I didn’t think it was right for some people to be poor and some people to be so damn rich” shaped his consciousness and political life.
As the YCL expanded its organizational commitments to the struggle against racism, that became a focus of March’s attention, including working on anti-lynching campaigns, and campaigns to free African American males wrongly accused of rape: the most famous of which was the so-called “Scottsboro Boys” trial and conviction in Alabama. In the late 1920s, March was sent as an organizer for the YCL to Kansas City. He organized rallies and marches of the unemployed, suffered police beatings and jail, and organized a large unemployment movement. Reflecting on the YCL and organizing campaigns, March reported that “In many respects, you have a narrow, sectarian organization, and a lot of theoretical discussion operating in an atmosphere in which, in the United States, there was considerable unrest, exploitation, unemployment. And even as sectarian as they were, people were just looking for some way out to do anything.”
While the Communist Party supported organizing efforts, it was the Young Communist League, locally grounded, that took the lead in shop floor mobilizations at Armour and Swift plants. Many workers experienced or heard about the big strikes of 1921. March met with Croatian packinghouse workers who came out of left wing backgrounds.
In 1933, Herbert and Jane March moved to Chicago, and became major organizers of the incipient Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee (PWOC) which would become the United Packinghouse Workers Union (CIO) in 1943. The combination of massive stockyards on Chicago’s south side, the history of class struggle in “the yards” in 1904 and 1921, the newly passed National Recovery Act that authorized trade unions, the presence of unemployment councils, and branches of the CP and YCL in the neighborhood provided a context for the massive organizing in Chicago over the next decade. Jane March, a YCL member, worked with the University of Chicago settlement House, near the stockyards and young organizers such as Vicky Starr, seen prominently in the powerful documentary, Union Maids.[6] Starr networked with radical students from the University of Chicago.
March identified racism, which went back to the failed organizing efforts earlier in the century in the stock yards, as the primary hurdle to union organizing:
People were very afraid. Very much for unionism. Fearful that it would not be possible to achieve unionism because you had the split of black and white and too many nationalities…There was all this fear that they would play one nationality against the other…The idea that there should be a union was generally acceptable, but people were afraid. And the whole job was breaking down the fear. [7]
The history of the struggle for unionization after World War One led by the Stockyards Labor Council illustrates the desperate effort of union leaders of that period (portrayed in a PBS docudrama called The Killing Floor[8]) to create an integrated union leadership and overcome the justified suspiciousness African Americans had concerning their white counterparts. After the failed strike in 1921, and throughout the 1920s meat packing companies sought to maintain the rifts between Black and white workers. Overcoming this long history was central to building the PWOC.
March played a leading role in the period from 1933 until the end of World War II building the PWOC and finally UPWA. He organized huge rallies in the Back of the Yards in 1937, recruited workers into the CIO and CPUSA, and engaged in efforts to remove CIO leaders imposed on the PWOC, who had little connection to meat packing. Some of these leaders according to March and others were more interested in stabilizing the union, reducing conflicts with the Big Four meat packers, and eliminating Communist influence in the union, than expanding grassroots trade union militancy.
March reported that while he avoided engaging in the disputes in the Communist Party between William Z. Foster and Earl Browder in the 1930s, his public declaration that he was a member of the CPUSA contradicted party policy. He said that many workers joined the party because he had demonstrated his effective trade union leadership. “Most of my time was spent on union work…. Just by functioning and playing a role as an effective leader and organizer, why, I was able to attract people into the party.”
After World War II, March, and comrade Jesse Prosten, played a leading role in the selection of staff attorney Ralph Helstein as president of the new UPWA. Helstein represented in the union the “left-center coalition” against insurgent campaigns by the “CIO-Caucus” to de-radicalize the union. Helstein served as UPWA president from 1946 until 1968 when the union folded into the Amalgamated Meat Cutters.
March characterized UPWA union politics in the period of the Cold War as, for the most part, progressive: fighting rising anti-communism in the labor movement, insisting that all UPWA locals and the international itself take the lead in fighting racism, and opposing escalating Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union (The Packinghouse Worker, April, 1953 special issue of the paper declared its opposition to the U.S./Korean war policy).
However, March claims that with increasing anti-communist attacks on the union from outside and inside the labor movement, growing demands from Black workers for more leadership positions in the union, and continuing tensions between him and the national leadership of the CP, he left the union and the party in the mid-1950s.
Defending the early tradition of shop-floor militancy and spontaneous work stoppages March critiqued the evolution of the US labor movement, including the UPWA after the great CIO organizing drives of the 1930s: “When people develop the concept that what they do is have an organization that pays dues and is respectable, and that is the objective of the union, it’s business unionism. Unionism is a business. It’s no longer a labor movement.”
Reflecting on UPWA, March said that “all things considered, it was the closest thing to a decent union around in the CIO. It didn’t develop, as far as the national leadership is concerned, the same sort of bureaucracy that existed in steel and other unions.” However, he added, “it grew more and more timid and hesitant.” Perhaps, he suggested, the merger of the CIO with the AFL had a lot to do with the diminution of the old labor militancy.
During the 50s, the Party waged struggles for African American equality and against white chauvinism, in the ranks of the Party and trade unions and other progressive organizations. However, often, those charged with white chauvinism were more victims of inter-Party feuds and factionalism of this period. March fell prey to such charges of white chauvinism in the party and the union in the 1950s. Still, he praised the UPWA for fighting against racism in the industry and society. Blacks, he said, were always key leaders in the union and this was due to the policies of the union and their leadership skills.
Summing up, March reflected: “We initiated the union, and developed the union, and carried it through as a union of Black and white workers from the inception. It wasn’t a question of white trying to bring forward Blacks, it was just an integral part of the union and its thinking from the word go.”
And March concluded a 1986 interview with prophetic words: “I’m still convinced that what this world needs is socialism in some form….What’s going to happen is that the whole burden of a declining economy in this country is going to be placed on, to the degree that it can be managed, on the shoulders of working people in this country…A new re-awakening of the labor movement is going to have to take place.” Bottom of Form
Jay Schaffner: Connecting Generations of Socialists[9]
Jay Schaffner was born (1952) when the “old left” was being destroyed by domestic repression and the mania of the escalating Cold War against a “demonic” Soviet Union was escalating. He grew up in an era when a “new left” of young people emerged challenging the military/industrial complex, the growing danger of nuclear war, Jim Crow racism in the South and institutionalized racism everywhere, and an escalating new war in Southeast Asia. Young people were demanding greater influence over the institutions that shaped their lives. Schaffner was born in Chicago and raised in Skokie, Illinois, a suburb just north of the Chicago border increasingly populated by Jews. Skokie Jewish residents had migrated from the old West Side, to the North Side, to the newer suburbs.
Schaffner became a militant activist in high school, participating in a citywide chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, mobilizing youth forces against the war in Vietnam, and connecting with younger members of the Communist Party USA. In the 1960s he participated in Dubois Club activities and helped found the Young Workers Liberation League (YWLL) in 1970, organizing for them through the rest of the decade in Chicago, downstate Illinois, Iowa, and later nationally. His anti-war work earned him an invitation to North Vietnam as part of a youth 1970. He was the youngest representative from the United States peace movement to visit that war torn country.
For 23 years, Schaffner, active in peace and justice, civil rights, and worker movements, was an active member, often in leadership roles, in the CPUSA. When he left the Party in 1991, he became a founding member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS), a socialist organization envisioned to include “socialist-minded” activists and intellectuals from various political traditions. He became an organizer, then a negotiator of national recording contracts and administrator for the Musicians Union in New York City. He was elected to the local’s Executive Board and served as a member of numerous negotiating committees. Before retiring from that post, he became a founder and moderator of “Portside”[10] a new online news source for information on the left which now has some 30,000 subscribers and on-line readers. While his organization venues and the issues he has concentrated on have changed Schaffner continues a life time of activism on the left.
In a recent presentation at Lafayette College, Schaffner reflected on what influenced the direction of his political vision – socialism – and his politics-activism around peace, labor, and anti-racist issues. These were his parents and the 1960s. “My political view of the world is a product of two generations–the 1960s, and that of my parents – immigrants to the United States who were radicalized in the 1920s and 1930s.”
In his discussion of the 60s, when he came of age politically, Schaffner challenged the stereotype of the era as driven by “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” He reported that the 1960s that shaped his consciousness and lifetime commitments included successful struggles by African Americans to defeat Jim Crow segregation, rising youth anger at the draft and the burgeoning anti-war movement, outrage at the possibility of nuclear war, the dramatic worldwide decolonization of countries in Asia and Africa, and a curiosity about a Socialist world demonized in the Western press.
My generation was shaped by these events – African Americans being brutalized and murdered by white sheriffs and the Ku Klux Klan; daily images of caskets coming back from Vietnam, the assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy; the vicious attacks on the Black freedom movement, and in Chicago, the brutal police murder of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark; the attack against and murder of peaceful student demonstrators at Kent State and Jackson State, and a few years later the CIA’s toppling of the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile. These events, and their coverage, helped shape the consciousness of the generation of the 60s and 70s”.[11]
Schaffner’s parents escaped anti-Semitic persecution in the Ukraine, came to Chicago where Jay’s father worked as a milkman for different dairies and helped organize and build the Milk Drivers Union (Local 753 of the Teamsters). Schaffner’s father worked with Jack Spiegel and another CPUSA activist Claude Lightfoot to bring milk and groceries collected from grocers to the Unemployment Councils. Working for a pro-Nazi dairy in the late 1930s the senior Schaffner opposed anti-Semitism, was fired and black-listed from other dairies. His mother worked as a clerical worker. As young people, Schaffner’s parents became part of the maelstrom of communist and socialist politics in the 1920s and 1930s (Schaffner’s mother got lost traveling to the Southside of Chicago for the big Memorial Day strike at Republic Steel in 1937. At that event Chicago police brutally attacked striking steel workers, killing several – She was spared because she was late).
During the dark days of the 1950s the Schaffner family was hounded by FBI observers, including successful FBI efforts to pressure employers to fire Jay’s mother. While they left the CPUSA during this time, they remained committed to its politics. The Schaffner family, two parents and two sons, continued to discuss the issues of the day. In addition, the sons attended a progressive Jewish Sunday School.
Schaffner’s lecture included much detailed description of political activism from the 1960s until today. The material he presented included critiques of various political organizations of which he was a member. But, as his narrative suggests, his vision and activism remain committed to the struggle for socialism. He pointed out that organizing for socialism is an historical project with gains and losses, errors and acts of brilliance. In the end history, he still believes will move in a direction that will improve the condition of peoples’ lives.
“I think that radical consciousness will grow and develop, and as part of that there will also be a growth in a new socialist movement. In 1848 when Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto, there were no large socialist movement, no socialist countries, and no communist parties. In the early part of this century, socialists were elected to city and state office across the country, and to Congress; Eugene Debs received six percent of all votes cast for President. This was when there were no socialist countries, no communist parties.
So again I think that a new Left movement will come into existence. It will be based in part on the vast Occupy sentiment; it will work on different levels, in different forms in community after community. Out of this new new left will also come a new socialist movement. I am not sure what it will be called, what it will look like, but I know that I will be a part of it.”[12]
On Chicago and Jewish Immigrants
These narratives seek to address a multiplicity of variables (class, ethnicity, ideology, political organization, and place) all at once. This makes the story complicated and does not lend itself to explanations based on simple causal connections. The short stories above refer to actors who became activists for a brief moment or a lifetime. They are/were all Jewish. They were all militant activists for workers and three of the four became lifelong socialists. It is interesting to note that the primary political activities of all four occurred in the city of Chicago.
In a recent book by Thomas Dyja[13], the author makes the compelling case that Chicago became the hub of the developing industrial America, and particularly between 1945 and the 1960s, the centerpiece of the U.S. economy (from manufacturing to finance), popular culture, architecture, and a complicated working class and racist politics that reflected the nation.
Many writers point to the early post-Civil War period as the time when the economic and political ruling classes of the United States assumed it was time to bury the vision of an America driven by a Southern agricultural economy. Post-Civil War America began to expand across the continental United States, shifting from self-sustaining food production to what would become global food manufacturing. New agribusinesses required modern farming technologies, transportation systems to bring the product to markets (national and global). The globalization of agriculture paralleled the development of an industrial economy (including farm equipment) based on mass production and eventually mass consumption.
The phases of this development of a modern industrial economy, one that by the 1890s would require the construction of a global empire, led to the development of geographic centers of production, distribution, communication, and consumption. Chicago by the 1880s had become a hub of such activity: linking East to West, technology and agricultural production, and manufacturing and early financial capital. Chicago became a center of worker migration from all across the globe. The Chicago economy, “the hog butcher of the world,” featured manufacturing facilities for meat packing, steel, automobile, electronics, textiles, and farm equipment.
In addition, with the industrial revolution, the centralization of economic and political power, and growing exploitation of immigrant workers and a debt system imposed on farmers, Chicago became a pivot of political protest against the modern industrial capitalist system. The so-called Haymarket Affair (1886) generated worldwide attention among workers. Eight anarchists who participated in mass marches to secure the eight-hour day were falsely charged with the murder of several policemen. They were tried and convicted in an environment of hysteria, and sentenced to death. The frame-up of the eight militant workers set off a worldwide movement of socialists and anarchists to fight back and/or overthrow the capitalist system.
In 1905, the first meeting of the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) was held in Chicago. For a time during the 1920s, the CPUSA had its headquarters in Chicago. Communists, socialists, anarchists, “bohemian” counter-culturalists, and African American political and cultural movements all had a physical presence in Chicago. As late as the 1960s, Chicago still was a significant venue for 1960s activists from the Black Panther Party, SDS, and the anti-war movement. Militants in the labor movement from the days of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle to the Chicago Teachers Union today testify to the radical traditions in Chicago.
Along with the milieu of industrialization and labor radicalism, Chicago was a center of migration from Northern, Eastern, and Southern Europe, as well as Asia and later Central America. From the 1880s to the 1920s the Jewish population of Chicago increased from 10,000 to 225,000 (from 2 to 8 percent of the population). By 2000, the Jewish population was 270,000, over 70 percent living in suburbs. During the heyday of Communist Party organizing, mobilization for industrial unionization, and the efforts of Unemployed Councils to save families from evictions. Jews as the second largest minority in the city were overrepresented in the CPUSA, representing the largest ethnic contingent in the CPUSA. Randi Storch reports,[14] that in 1931 in Chicago 16 percent of its population was Jewish and, at the same time, 22 percent of the party’s membership was Jewish (only 6.5 percent of the CPUSA party membership was Polish, then the largest minority in Chicago).
In sum, Chicago was geographically and economically located at the center of industrializing America. Strategically placed at the hub of transportation across the continental United States, railroad lines, food processing and distribution, and other manufacturing facilities thrived and grew with the city. Chicago, therefore, became the magnet for the construction of a modern industrial working class, particularly drawn from massive pools of immigrant labor either seeking economic opportunities not available elsewhere or fleeing persecution. Immigrants brought to industrial America the vision of economic justice and worker rights. These workers provided the pool for the labor movement, Communist and socialist politics, and later supporters for rights for all workers, irrespective of race, gender, or sexual preference (“an injury to one is an injury to all”).
Class, Ethnicity, Ideology and Jewish Radicalism in 20th Century Chicago
1890: New York City’s knee-pants workers go on a general strike, forcing their bosses to sign union contracts for the first time. 1882: an anarchist attempts to assassinate one of America’s leadings industrialists. 1916 eight hundred workers assemble in a Philadelphia hall to hear a Yiddish lecture on “Revolutionary Motifs in World Literature,” 1919: an up-and-coming labor lawyer is elected to the New York State Assembly on the Socialist Party ticket, only to be expelled, along with four other Socialists, a year later. 1929: a Los Angeles judge sentences five women to San Quentin for flying the Soviet flag at a summer camp in the San Bernardino Mountains, 1947: the Communist Party USA calls for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. These disparate events provide glimpses into the long, complicated involvement of Jews in American socialism, a history in which class conflict, political repression, revolutionary fervor, and universalistic visions of humanity collided into and intermixed with faith in American democracy, striving for economic success, and commitment to Jewish group solidarity. Along the way, Jews redefined who they were, as both individuals and a community, as they joined with like-minded people of all backgrounds to remake American society. What produced this convergence between Jews and socialism? And what were its ramifications? The story begins in the late nineteenth century.
….The New Left may be considered a legacy – tenuous in some instances, direct in others – handed down by earlier generations going back to the founding of the Jewish labor movement of the 1880s.[15]
Tony Michels introduced his collection of essays by Jewish radicals linking class, ethnicity, ideology, and praxis making several points. First, Jewish socialism emerges in the Jewish labor movement of the 1880s with workers bringing to their organizing a variety of political variants of socialist and anarchist thought. Jewish workers organized labor circles, cultural associations and a variety of community help organizations. Thousands of Jewish immigrants gravitated toward the Socialist Party in the early twentieth century, supporting the presidential candidacy of Eugene V. Debs during his four failed campaigns for president. In addition, Jewish workers played key roles in organizing twentieth century trade unions, particularly in the garment and textile industries.
Further, Michels argues that Jewish workers were radicalized more by their class rather than their ethnic status. In addition, they were likely to embrace visions of worker solidarity with workers worldwide. After World War I, Jews were overrepresented in the ranks of the Communist Party USA compared with other ethnic minorities. Freiheit, the Jewish Communist newspaper in the 1920s had 20,000 subscribers. Jewish Communists also built a network of summer camps, cultural societies, and a housing cooperative during that decade as well.
Michels claims that socialism and communism had broad appeal among American born Jews as well. While many second generation Jews did not come from sweatshops and in many cases attended the university, experiences of their parents, the Great Depression and the rise of anti-Semitism of the 1930s stimulated a disproportionately large number of their generation to embrace the left politically. For Jews, socialism was in the culture, the community, and among friends and neighbors.
The four narratives presented above and the survey of history and theory that followed point to the centrality of class as an explanation of the political practice of Jewish Americans.
Experiencing the twentieth century shop floor predisposed Jews to seek the right to form unions, to secure better wages and working conditions, and to envision a new world where bosses did not determine the destiny of work.
The first generation of Jewish radicals fled to the United States to avoid anti-Semitism and they came and planted roots as communities. They brought with them the old world sensibility about community.
They also adopted a socialism learned from earlier immigrants, and transmitted from overseas movements, particularly the Russian Revolution.
And finally they found political homes in the newly organized trade union movement, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party.
And, for Hannah Shapiro, Jack Spiegel, Herb March, and Jay Schaffner the political economy of Chicago provided the fertile soil in which to grow politically and intellectually.
A big issue that helped shape the Jewish-social consciousness in this country was their experience as victims of anti-Semitism across the many countries from which they emigrated. Other national groups fled economic conditions and political repression, mainly coming from one country. Jews fled from that, as well as from anti-Semitism. The consciousness of being victims of anti-Semitism, a form of racial hatred, we believe led wide swaths of the Jewish community to identify with the humanism of their Jewish roots. Once in this country, again faced with anti-Semitism, Jews were able to identify with and support the cause of African Americans, victims of vicious racism, rooted in slavery. Now not all Jews, but the Jewish community as a community was receptive to the cause of the fight against national and racial oppression of other peoples.
Now link that with the ideology of socialism and communism (even anarchism) and once in this country, the reality that only through solidarity and unity could both economic oppression and anti-Semitism be overcome. That, they learned, required a fight also against racism and all forms of inequality and national oppression. This was a major, if not the dominant current in the Jewish community of the 1930s, rooted with their class position as workers. The notion of two oppressed peoples linking their futures together resonated within the Jewish community of the 20s and 30s (especially so after the intensive ideological campaign of the Communist Party, spurred on by the Communist International and Lenin’s thinking on linking of the class struggles of workers with that of the struggles of oppressed peoples against a common oppressor. The slogan of Negro-Jewish unity resonated from the time of the unemployed and Scottsboro and into the Civil Rights movement. It is no accident that amongst those who gave their lives for the cause of African American equality were the young Jews Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner – both of whom were off-spring of the radical, left, socialist and communist movements of New York City.
This was a dominant current in the Jewish community in this country until the founding of the state of Israel. Beginning in 1948, but especially after 1967, loyalty to Israel then became the prime issue. It is interesting that under the influence of Lenin and later Stalin, support and solidarity with the Soviet Union as the first workers state took priority over issues of one’s own class and people. The Soviet Union had to be supported no matter what. Today the dominant current in the Jewish community may be support of Israel, even if it is against one’s own interests. War with Iran is not in the interest of the American people, or of Jews in this country, yet the dominant Jewish leadership and their politicians are supporting the call of the most reactionaries in Israel.
Do these four stories help in the understanding of the contemporary campaign of Bernie Sanders for president? Perhaps. Are connections between class, ethnicity, race, and visions of economic and social justice still relevant today? Perhaps. (Targ and Schaffner)

Harry Targ teaches foreign policy, US/Latin American relations, international political economy, and topics on labor studies in a Department of Political Science and a program in Peace Studies. He sees connections between theory/education and political practice. Targ is a member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS), the Northwest Central Labor Council (AFL-CIO),and the Lafayette Area Peace Coalition (LAPC). His book, Diary of a Heartland Radical, can be ordered at He can be reached at
Jay Schaffner is one of the moderators of Portside. He is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, and a the JVP Labor Advisory Council. Jay lives in New York City, is a member of the Working Families Party, and serves on its State Committee. He is a life-long activist and socialist, and worked for various trade unions, peace and social justice organizations for more than 40 years. Before retiring, he was recording contracts supervisor and an Executive Board member of Local 802, American Federation of Musicians. Jay is looking for the birth of both a new socialist movement (with legs) and an embracing socialist organization. He can be reached at ]

[1] Marlene Targ Brill, Annie Shapiro and the Clothing Workers’ Strike, Millbrook Press, 2013.
[2] Randi Storch, Red Chicago: American Communism at its Grassroots, 1928-35. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007.
[3] Studs Terkel. Working. New York: Avon, 1974, Avon, 356-357.
[4] James Janega, “Jack D. Spiegel, Longtime Activist,” Chicago Tribune, March 16, 2000.
[5] Harry Targ, “Herb March and Vicky Starr: Chicago Organizers of the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA-CIO)”, Diary of a Heartland Radical,, June 9, 2011.
[6] James Klein, Miles Mogulescu and Julia Reichert. Union Maids. Produced by James Klein, Miles Mogulescu and Julia Reichert. Distributed by New Day Distribution Co-op, 1977.
[7] “Herb March and Vicky Starr: Chicago Organizers”
[8] Leslie Lee. Adaptation by Ron Milner. Story by Elsa Rassbach. The Killing Floor. Directed by Bill Duke. Produced by George Manasse, for American Playhouse, 1984.
[9] Jay Schaffner, “Born Red-Reflections on My Life as a Socialist,” lecture, Lafayette College, Easton, Pennsylvania,, April 18, 2013.
[11] Schaffner.
[12] Schaffner.
[13] Thomas L. Dyja. The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream. New York: Penguin Press, 2013.
[14] Randi Storch, Red Chicago
[15] Taken from Tony Michels. Jewish Radicals: A Documentary History. New York: New York University, 2012, 1-24.

2 thoughts on “The Jewish Progressive Tradition: Examples from Chicago's Labor and Socialist Movements

  1. Those adorable American Stalinists of yore — Jewish and otherwise — supported and justified and enabled one of the most brutal and repressive regimes in the history of the world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *