Tales of the Jewish Working Class: Crackup and Transformation of the Jewish Left

  • Posted on: 14 June 2019
  • By: thecollective

This is an excerpt from the second of three articles in a series entitled The Anarchists and the Jews from Tablet - you can find the whole piece here

The Jewish labor movement was 30 or 35 years old at the start of the civil war in the garment center. The unions had gotten started under an inspiration from anarchists like Kropotkin and fantasists with a Marxist bent, and the utopian aspirations and militant hopes of the early days had persisted over the decades, even after the anarchists in the unions were pushed aside by the cannier Socialists. A large number of Jewish workers, Epstein explained (in 1953, when he brought out Volume II of Jewish Labor in U.S.A.), had been “instilled with the spirit that their unions were but a part of a wider movement that would eventually do away with the present system and usher in the ideal society.” The Jewish workers, a great mass of them, were sincere, earnest, faithful, dedicated, generous, and hopeful—even if, as he admitted, it was hard to get those people to pay an extra nickel in union dues. They enjoyed participating in debates, though. And, over the course of the civil war of the 1920s and into the ’30s, the misty simplicity and idealism quietly evaporated.

I will sum up the reasons for this in my own words, drawing on Epstein but without trying to remain faithful to his every shade and nuance. The sincere and simple belief in the coming social revolution and the ideal society faded away because everybody, on the Linke and on the Recht, was paying attention to developments in the Soviet Union, and the Soviet events broke their hearts. Some of the people on the Linke continued to affirm a simple faith in the Soviet Union and its governing party and its brilliant future—and the simplicity of their belief was terrifying to everyone else, and gave idealism a sinister reputation.

Other people on the Linke came to suspect, along with their newspaper editor, that in favoring the Soviet Union they had made a colossal political mistake, which was unnerving. People on both sides, Linke and Recht, came away from the fighting with the kind of cynicism that made it plausible to enlist gangsters in the struggle—which had not been unknown in previous decades, but had never been the province of people who waxed eloquent on the glories of the working class. Or it may be that, over the course of those years, a great mass of the Jewish workers in America acquired a more sophisticated understanding of business and democracy and America, which left them a little jaded. That was Melech Epstein’s belief. “Youthful fires were burning low in many hearts.” It was the end of something, then—the end, at least, of the Lower East Side as the national capital of a certain kind of Yiddish-language grandiosity.

And the entire episode proved to be excruciating for the third and smallest and oldest faction in the Jewish labor movement, after the Old Guard Social Democrats on the Recht and the Communists on the Linke—namely, the anarchists. The anarchists’ experience was confusing in the extreme in those years. Their first instinct, back in 1917, was to line up in support of the Bolsheviks in faraway Russia, exactly as the anarchists in Russia itself were doing. The anarchists in America admired their fellow immigrants who returned to Russia and enlisted in the Revolution. They admired the new Communist Party in the United States. Some of them joined. They allowed their newspaper, the Freie Arbeiter Stimme, to fall into Communist hands, for a moment. Letters from old friends and family in Russia began to arrive, however, and the letters were read aloud at meetings—and the anarchists in the United States, Jewish and otherwise, woke up to reality.

They regained control of their own newspaper. And, in 1922, a main group of the anarchists at the Freie Arbeiter Stimme and among the militants within the ILGWU made the logical decision, in the face of Communism’s progress abroad and at home, which was to abandon their ancient enmity for the Social Democrats and, in a sober spirit, to strike up a Social Democratic alliance. The logical decision was difficult to make, emotionally speaking, given how long the enmity between anarchists and Social Democrats had gone on. And the decision was difficult to make, philosophically speaking.

Everyone could see that, from one day to the next, the Social Democrats were losing their revolutionary zeal, precisely in the way that Melech Epstein described. In striking up an alliance, the anarchists were obliged to recognize, implicitly or explicitly, that in some fashion they, too, were setting aside their revolutionary expectations, which had always looked for a proletarian revolution in the United States, and they were setting aside their expectations for the rest of the world, as well—except in Spain, where the anarcho-syndicalist trade union confederation was sufficiently enormous to make revolutionary expectations seem reasonable. And the decision to strike up an alliance with the Social Democrats was not easy to make, physically speaking. In the past, the anarchists in the United States had always had to cope with violent attacks from the political right and with the terrors of police and the jails. But now it was the toughs of the Communist Party, which meant their own neighbors, who administered the beatings.

Rose Pesotta addresses the floor at the 1965 ILGWU convention (Photo: Wikipedia)

The anarchists seethed over those beatings, they remembered, and they continued to seethe (as I know because I heard some of those people, in their elderly years, recount more than once their experiences, half a century or more later). But mostly they seethed over the news from Russia—the news about one or another comrade of theirs, some old friend from the anarchist movement, who had departed for Russia and the revolution, and had been shot, or was expiring in prison, or had disappeared.

The upset over the fates of Fanya and Aron Baron, beloved comrades from Chicago who had made their way to Russia, became a major issue all by itself among the anarchists, with the news eventually emerging that Fanya had been shot, and, many years later, that Aron, too, had been shot (and a flickering ember of those angers has never expired, such that, in 2010, a group calling itself The Alexander Berkman Social Club published a volume of anarchist prisoner-aid documents called The Tragic Procession, with a portrait of Aron Baron as the cover illustration; and, in 2017, a group calling itself The Friends of Aron Baron brought out a volume of left-wing anti-Communist documents, from the anarchist publisher AK Press, under the unforgiving title Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counterrevolution).

Then again, the anarchists in the United States—the Jewish anarchists and some of their friends—may have given as good as they got. The alliance with the Social Democrats conferred on them a degree of institutional power, and they were not reluctant to use it. Morris Sigman was a clothing presser and an anarchist from a Wobbly background, with a reputation as a hero of the cloakmakers’ strike of 1910—and, in 1923, precisely at the moment when the ILGWU was beginning to fall under Communist domination, Sigman and the Socialists in the union came to an understanding. The Socialists allowed the anarchist to take over the presidency of the union. And it was President Sigman, the anarchist, who led the counterattack, urged onward by the anarchist faction, who appear to have been the ultramilitants in what now began to happen. A labor journalist named Benjamin Stolberg wrote a marvelous book about the ILGWU called Tailor’s Progress, in 1944, which ought to be reprinted (but won’t be because Stolberg’s jocular tone about the female majority in the apparel unions is revolting to read)—in which he described Morris Sigman as “tough, though not hard-boiled, utterly honest and fanatically logical, unbending and proletarian both in his habits and his outlook.”

Morris Sigman and Fiorello La Guardia, circa 1924 (Photo: The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives/Flickr)

In the opinion of other people, though, Sigman’s proletarianism was entirely hard-boiled, such that even the daily Forverts, which was generally hard-boiled itself on the topic of the Soviet Union and its supporters, advised him to lighten up, for the sake of unionism and the working class. He was promiscuous with expulsion decrees. He dispatched his people to seize offices. Hard-boiled or not, it was Sigman and his peremptory decisions who crushed the takeover effort. He was, of course, a man of ideals. He used to give away his salary to down-at-heels members of the union, not that it was much of a salary.

Rose Pesotta’s style was the same, except in a feminine and cultured version. She was a dress operator from the Ukraine, who spoke up against the Soviet Union as early as 1922 at an ILGWU convention (you can read a few lines of transcript in Andrew Cornell’s history of the anarchists, Unruly Equality) and again in 1924 in a major speech on political prisoners, which is said to have marked a turning point in the war between the Recht and the Linke—Rose Pesotta, who ascended to a vice presidency of the union and became probably the most influential woman trade unionist in America during the heroic era of the labor movement: an organizer of Chinese and Mexican apparel workers in California, and of apparel workers in Puerto Rico; a leader in the battle to organize the auto industry and the rubber industry. And Pesotta, who was altogether hardline against the Linke, pushed for a still harder line on these matters in her advice to the best known of Sigman’s successors as president of the union, David Dubinsky, a hardliner himself from the cutters local.

She, too, made a display of fidelity to anarchist principle. She gave up her vice presidency after a few years and returned to the dressmaking shop, in rebuke of trade union bureaucrats everywhere—Rose Pesotta, who, with her two volumes of autobiography and a commendable biography of her by a scholar named Elaine Leeder, ought to be a legend on the American left and in the labor movement and among the American Jews, but is, for some reason, known only to the cognoscenti.

There was something sweet tempered about those people, the Jewish labor anarchists of the 1920s and ’30s. You can see it in Pesotta’s autobiography—in her account of her young girl’s life in the Ukraine, and her old-school father and the danger of an arranged marriage (which, as much as czarism and the pogroms, led her to flee to America). That is what Stolberg, the journalist, saw in Morris Sigman, the non-hard-boiled union strongman. But there was no reason why sweetness and ferocity couldn’t go together. I wonder if, in the Jewish labor movement, anybody was tougher than the anarchists. Anyway, in their sweet-tempered way, they racked up some very fine achievements over the next years.

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