Tales of the Jewish Working Class: Anarchism and the Multicultural Joys of New York
This is an excerpt from the third of three articles in a series entitled The Anarchists and the Jews from Tablet - you can find the whole piece here
Social Democratic trade unionism was a success in 20th-century America, materially and, as it were, gustatorially. Its successes were tasty and imaginative. It was especially a success in New York. Supremely it was a success for its original mass base, which was the Jewish working class in New York and in the faraway regions that used to be known within the needle-trades unions as “out of town.” Social Democratic trade unionism—the unionism of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the men’s apparel workers, the headgear workers, and on to still tinier labor organizations—brought order to the vast and turbulent garment industry, which, from its center in New York, made clothing for all of America.
Social Democratic unionism fended off the gangsters, if only partially, but sufficiently to maintain the “conquest of chaos,” in Benjamin Stolberg’s Kropotkinite phrase. And, having done all that, Social Democratic unionism was able to produce the kinds of paycheck improvements that allowed Alfred Kazin in later years to linger in pleasure over a favorite joke, to wit: “What is the difference between the ILGWU and the American Psychiatric Association?”—with the answer being, “One generation,” and the humor resting on the fact that it was true, and mobility out of the working class was the working class’ ultimate achievement.
The successes benefited the Italian garment workers, and other people, too, after a while—sometimes with a delay on the part of the Jewish union leaders in recognizing that anyone apart from Jewish workers actually existed. But the other people did exist, and the leaders came around to making the recognition. And, in the case of the ILGWU, the unions responded by taking the traditional workers-education program of the Jewish labor movement and (here were some of the gustatory successes) expanding it into programs directed not just to the Jews but to the Italians and the sundry “national” groups (to use the union language) known as colored or Negro, Spanish (meaning Spanish-speaking), and so forth.
The policy was multiculturalism avant la lettre (if I may borrow a term from the labor historian Daniel Katz, the author of a book about the ILGWU’s cultural policies called All Together Different). Trade-union multiculturalism, too, had its successes. It generated a quietly attractive working-class environment in New York in the 1930s and after, with a summer resort and a Broadway show (Pins and Needles) and organized activities of many sorts, together with substantial support for the civil rights movement, as well, which was far from typical of the broader American labor movement—even if it is also true that nothing is perfect, and the ILGWU fell into a protracted and uncharacteristic dispute with the NAACP in the 1960s.
And together with the various and imperfect successes came a program for constructing housing cooperatives, which grew naturally from community-building for workers’ education and culture. Here was a program with roots that were Social Democratic and anarchist both. The circle around Emma Goldman organized a cultural and educational program called the Francisco Ferrer Center, which began on the Lower East Side in 1911 and made its way uptown to East Harlem, where it expanded into a virtual university, with Robert Henri and the Ashcan School offering the finest of fine art classes. And the cultural center evolved, in turn, into an anarchist colony in Stelton, New Jersey, in commuting distance of Manhattan, with a progressive school, which lasted a few decades.
Additional colonies sprouted up on anarchist principles in Lake Mohegan, New York, north of the city, and, on a fairly large scale, at the Sunrise Farm near Saginaw, Michigan, with hundreds of colonists doing their best to make a living—which scraped by for a few years with guidance and inspiration from one of the editors of the Freie Arbeiter Stimme, together with a little help financially from the New Deal. I have to confess that reading about the colonies always seems a little dismal to me, given that sooner or later every colony turns out to be Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, and from romance to acrimony and nuttiness is but a turn of the page.
But the Social Democrats knew what to do about that particular problem. They made the decision, beginning in the 1920s, to leave aside the tiny scale and fanciful extremes of the anarchist experiments in favor of constructing something on a genuinely large scale in the middle of New York, with an eye to practicality and endurance, and with a commitment, even so, to at least some of the communitarian aspirations. Up went the cooperative apartment houses of the Bronx and Manhattan, designed to encourage cultural life and a sense of community, and designed to remain safely protected from the commercial real estate market, too: socialist housing, in the positive sense of that phrase. And there is, in fact, a positive sense, as nearly everyone who has lived in those places can tell you. They constitute the best housing for working people in New York.
There were a lot of those houses, too, with close to 40,000 units or apartments eventually, which would amount to a small city, scattered about the neighborhoods. They were constructed by all kinds of groups and even by the Communist Party—though the Communist coops, in the Bronx, did not last. But the main projects were pursued under a Social Democratic leadership of one kind or another, trade-unionist or Yiddishist or Labor Zionist. The Amalgamated Clothing Workers and the ILGWU provided the principal financing in some instances, and provided the political clout, too, sufficiently to get financial support from the state of New York—all of which was beyond the modest capacity of the anarchists.
And yet, the whole idea of working people building their own housing, and doing it collectively, and not waiting for the state or a future revolution to do it, and doing it in ways that were intended to do more than put a roof over people’s heads—this idea was, after all, fundamental to the anarchist imagination. It was Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread, brought to life, not on the tiny scale of the fragile colonies but on a scale closer to what Kropotkin had imagined, back in the 1890s, suitable for society as a whole. Anarchism was precisely the inspiration for the chief organizer and presiding eminence of the cooperative housing movement in New York, Abraham Kazan, who constructed one major project after another on the Lower East Side, in midtown Manhattan, and in scattered corners of the Bronx. The anarchist inspiration figured particularly in one of the earliest and possibly the finest of those projects, which was Kazan’s romantically designed stone-wall Amalgamated Houses, in the West Bronx, beginning in 1927.
And the anarchists lived in those houses. I know this because, in the 1970s, when I was still in school, I found a refuge from the student political wars of those days by striking up friendships with a good many of the old-time New York anarchists, Jewish and Italian and whatnot, in their later years. And one after another of those people turned out to be inhabitants of the Social Democratic and labor coops, or played a role in their homey prosperity—my old friend Abe Bluestein notably, from a distinguished family background among the ILGWU anarchists (with a distinguished past of his own in the Spanish Revolution in the 1930s, as a deep-voiced English-language announcer for anarcho-syndicalist radio in Barcelona), who dedicated his professional career to managing the Amalgamated Houses and Coop City, where my mother lived, and I don’t know where else. Someone else lived in the redbrick Penn South coops in Chelsea (where the anarchists used to hold their meetings, courtesy of the Workmen’s Circle), and someone else in the high-rise coops along East Broadway on the Lower East Side: agreeable apartments, by and large.
I used to wonder why those people didn’t go all the way and declare their anarchism to be a branch of Social Democracy, in a version all their own, libertarian and imaginative. Or why not go further yet and claim a status as liberals, of an unusual sort? The anarchists’ Social Democratic allies in New York, some of them, did begin to attach a liberal adjective to themselves over the course of the 1940s and ’50s. The Social Democrats even fielded a New York state electoral party called the Liberal Party, which did well for a few years. In the anarchist movement around the world, any number of people over the decades had contemplated taking some such step, beginning with Kropotkin himself at the end of his life in the early 1920s, if I read him correctly—Kropotkin, who tried to persuade Lenin to mend the error of his ways and recognize the virtues of America. The Spanish anarchists gave some thought to conducting a reform of their own ideas. They decided against it. Emma Goldman herself, during her time in Spain, advised them not to do it.
In the United States, the grand theoretician of the Jewish or Yiddish-speaking anarchists, beginning in the 1930s, was Rudolf Rocker, who was a German exile and did not happen to be Jewish himself, though he dedicated his life to the cause of Yiddish-speaking anarchism. And Rocker, too, gave some thought to a major revision in the direction of liberalism, which he all but advocated in his book Anarcho-Syndicalism, and again in Pioneers of American Freedom. One of the editors of the Freie Arbeiter Stimme was Joseph J. Cohen, who was a leader in the anarchist colony movement—and perhaps Cohen did take the step. Cohen was some kind of uncle of the journalist I.F. Stone, but with a shrewder appreciation of foreign affairs, such that, in the period of the Korean War, when Stone found reasons to sympathize with North Korea, Cohen found reasons to declare himself a “firm supporter” of Adlai Stevenson, presidential candidate of the Democratic Party.
Among the anarchists in general, though, the major revision never took place. Doctrinal conservatism—though conservatism is a word that sits a little uneasily atop an anarchist’s head—turned out to be the nearly universal instinct. The anarchist labor movement in mid-20th-century New York ended up, as a result, looking a little odd, as if an oxcart wheel from darkest days of czarist oppression had been attached to a rubber bicycle wheel from New Deal America, and was rolling forward. There were people who found the doctrinal incongruities outrageous—Melech Epstein, for instance: Epstein, the Communist who defected to the Social Democrats (in a sign that he, at least, was willing to think new thoughts) and went on to write his magnum opus, which was Jewish Labor in U.S.A. Epstein was scathing about the aging Jewish anarchists, and he was scathing about some of their Social Democratic friends, as well, and their ideological pretensions. “Those who still call themselves socialists and anarchists are neither; they do it out of sheer habit.”
The Freie Arbeiter Stimme had become, Epstein said, “as anarchistic as The New York Times and, in foreign policy, less liberal” (though he added that Yanovsky, the editor, published good poetry). By the 1960s, the Jewish labor anarchists, in their old age, had come to think well of Lyndon B. Johnson! The author of Jewish Labor in U.S.A. was beside himself.
Still, my view is the other way around. In the case of the Social Democrats, I admire them for having veered into liberalism; and in the case of the anarchists, I admire them for having veered into Social Democracy. If the Social Democrats and especially the anarchists made a mistake in any of this in their later years, it was only in not gathering up the courage to admit to themselves and the world how radically they had evolved, and what were their reasons for doing so. The best thing that an older political generation can do for the generations that follow is to offer explanations of that sort, instead of allowing the younger people to suppose, as younger people like to do, that change is shameful, and only the infirmities of age can alone explain why anyone with left-wing opinions would entertain a new thought. In the case of the old anarchists, an admission did seem to be halfway formed on their lips, as if they only needed the right provocation to say it out loud.
Sometime in the middle 1970s I found myself at one of the congenial meetings of the old-time anarchists—they ran a lecture series under the rubric of the Libertarian Book Club, their traditional organization—where the name of Eleanor Roosevelt happened to be mentioned. And I was taken aback to see a room crowded with elderly Jewish ladies who read the Freie Arbeiter Stimme or helped put it out, together with possibly a white-haired Italian ex-terrorist or two, or maybe a grizzled veteran of the St. Petersburg uprisings of 1917, and a number of tough-guy harbor Wobblies and I don’t know who else, burst into spontaneous applause. Eleanor Roosevelt, hooray! Such was the spirit of working-class anarchism in New York, among its hard-bitten surviving militants, in their retirement days. Well, not all of them, but enough to make a resounding applause.