Morris Hilquit's Socialism
To the Editor:
A curious reprise of recent history was offered in the September issue in the disquisition on Morris Hillquit by your contributing editor, Milton Himmelfarb [“Universalist Elite, Parochial Mass,” In the Community]. Mr. Himmelfarb’s essay seems to have been triggered by an article he read in the March issue of the Publication of the American Jewish Historical Society by Arthur Gorenstein. . . . Mr. Himmelfarb’s essay begins as follows: “Gorenstein explains why Morris Hillquit, a Russian Jew . . . was not elected to Congress in 1906 and 1908, while Meyer London, the later Socialist nominee . . . was elected three times between 1914 and 1920. . . .”
Dozens of reasons other than those accepted by the team of Gorenstein-Himmelfarb might be offered. For instance, in 1914-1920 there were many more Jewish immigrants in the relevant Congressional districts than there had been in 1906 and 1908. What’s more, many of the immigrants were now naturalized citizens and possessed voting qualifications. . . . Important also is the fact that toward the end of the second decade, the Socialists had well-organized, well-articulated trade unions among Jewish workers. . . . Meyer London had the advantage of these committees when he ran in the latter half of the decade. . . . As for other differences between the two men, obviously they differed in personality, but they never clashed. Their spiritual and cerebral impact on the Jewish populace was almost identical. . . . Indeed, the campaigns of both candidates became holy causes for most of the Jewish population on the East Side. . . .
When the ratio of voters to devotees did change with the years, both London and Hillquit fared very well at the polls during the Socialist party’s upsurge. It may come as a surprise to Mr. Himmelfarb, but Hillquit was undoubtedly elected to Congress in 1916. His election was stolen from him. The bi-party election boards in two polling places held off the final count of the ballot past midnight of Election Day after all other districts had already reported. . . . Hillquit had come to these polling places with 500 votes to the good. The districts in question were considered favorable to the Socialists. Yet on the final count, Hillquit was declared a loser by some 350 votes. The East Side, far from jubilant over the Socialist’s discomfiture, was in mourning for days thereafter. . . .
It seems monstrous to me that a magazine that presumes to act as a “journal of significant thought on Jewish affairs” should lend itself to so gross a distortion and perversion of the Jewish-immigrant ethos as the one presented by Mr. Himmelfarb cum Gorenstein. Doesn’t it seem contradictory that Hillquit who, according to Himmelfarb, “could not accommodate himself to the demands of the East Side,” nevertheless rolled up such a following that the opposing parties, Tammany and the Republicans, finally formed fusion tickets against him? The paradox must have irritated Mr. Himmelfarb, for he feels constrained to offer supporting testimony. And of all people among the Socialists he brings up Louis Boudin as witness against Hillquit. Comrade Boudin was reputed to have been more content with Hillquit’s defeat than with London’s victory because of London’s supposed emphasis on the Jewish sympathies of his constituents. . . .
As for Hillquit’s Jewish associations, he had been one of the founders of the Arbeiter Zeitung, the precursor of the Jewish Daily Forward, was a prime mover in the founding of the Forward, and wrote in Yiddish for both. . . . Hillquit also was the first secretary of the United Hebrew Trades, an office that entailed much travail and required constant writing and speaking in Yiddish, constant meeting and agitation among the immigrant Jews of those days. . . .
[Mr. Himmelfarb] puts down as a simple declarative statement that the “Socialist party was against immigration, agreeing with the American Federation of Labor that the bosses were using immigrants to lower wages and fight the unions.” . . . The Socialist party was never against immigration; it couldn’t have been in view of the preponderant weight immigrant groups carried within it. Neither the party nor Hillquit agreed with the AFL on immigration or on much of anything else. . . . It was not until 1924 that the AFL, under Gompers, gave a little tacit accommodation to Hillquit’s point of view when it joined hands with the Socialists in the LaFollette presidential campaign.
Mr. Himmelfarb . . . even implies that Hillquit was indifferent to the pogroms of 1905 in Russia, and thus supposedly offended the East Side Jews; yet Hillquit was sufficiently popular the next year to score a near victory in the election for Congress. According to the Himmelfarb construction, Hillquit was considered the “Socialist Bingham,” the latter being the New York police commissioner who delivered himself of the profound observation that “half the criminals in the city were Russian Jews.” . . .
I wonder who is the Bingham in our midst . . . if an author can permit himself the following calumny on an entire generation of immigrant Jews: “Why [asks Mr. Himmelfarb] did the radicals disregard or play down Nazism’s persecution and murder of Jews? Why was it so important to them to insist that Nazism was merely capitalism in extremis? . . . Ordinary Jews were anti-Nazi because they knew Hitler was out to murder the Jews. . . . They were the children of the East Side Tammany voters, and the radical intellectuals were the children of the Hillquit Socialists.” . . .
What “radicals” is Mr. Himmelfarb talking about? Does he mean the Communists who contrived all sorts of evasions and excuses for their moral degeneracy when they justified the Stalin-Hitler pact? But Hillquit and his associates fought the Communists bitterly. . . . It was the American intelligentsia, including effete intellectuals and parlor pinks from supposedly “cultural” Jewish homes, who supported the Communists and hampered the efforts of Hillquit-Socialists to expose and defeat them. . . . It’s horrible to say of the immigrants who with martyr-like devotion manned the picket lines, fought the political battles against an unclean enemy, built the unions among Jews in America, ennobled social, cultural, and spiritual values—that these Jews, the fathers and mothers of the major portion of the community, were somehow remiss in spirit, followed false prophets, and trained their children to serve brass idols. What syllogistic monstrosity is this that can persuade a COMMENTARY author to argue that the Jewish Socialists raised a generation of Nazi-lovers? . . .
J. C. Rich
Putnam Valley, New York
To the Editor:
Milton Himmelfarb compares Hillquit’s failure to win election to Congress in 1906 and 1908 with London’s successes between 1914 and 1920. But—even aside from the fact, which may not be very important, that a lot of the 1906 voters had already moved to Brownsville, Harlem, and the Bronx, and had been replaced by newcomers—a number of other things had changed in the interim. In 1906 the Jewish Socialist movement was still in its infancy. . . . The Socialist-led needle trade strikes of 1909 and 1910 had changed all that. . . . This change was reflected in the Socialist straight-ticket vote. Hillquit received more than 26 per cent of the vote in 1906, at a time when the general Socialist vote in the different parts of the district was between 2 and 3 per cent. This was a more striking personal achievement than was even London’s most striking victory in 1914, when he received 49 per cent of the vote as compared to about 12.5 per cent for the ticket.
I have not found any instance in which Hillquit and London were candidates in the same election. . . . However, in 1911 both London and Morris Hillquit’s brother, Jacob, were on the party’s slate for the same judicial office. While London polled about a tenth more votes than did the straight ticket—this was his usual margin in elections prior to 1914—he ran behind Jacob Hillquit. The latter was not an important figure in his own right; his strength must be attributed to reflected glory from his brother. And whereas London polled about 44 per cent of the vote in 1916 and 43 per cent in 1918, Hillquit’s vote for Mayor in 1917 was 47 per cent in the same area. (Comparisons are not precise, because Congressional district lines overlapped those of Assembly districts, and the lines of London’s Congressional district were also altered somewhat between elections. In addition, the number of stolen votes is a variable which cannot be precisely estimated. In the case of Hillquit’s 1917 campaign, it may easily have been enough to add 50 per cent to his official total; 20,000 Hillquit ballots were discovered in a single batch that had been thrown into a sewer. London was probably robbed on a smaller scale; the Mayoralty, carrying control over many thousands of jobs, was much more important to Tammany than a single seat in Congress.) . . .
To explain the nonexistent superiority of London to Hillquit as a votegetter, Mr. Himmelfarb cites the supposed anti-immigration policy of the Socialists. This also happens to have been nonexistent. It is true that the Socialists were divided on one aspect of the immigration question—that of Chinese immigration. This, however, was not an aspect on which East Side Jews were passionately aroused; few of them had any Chinese relatives. . . . The definitive statement of the Socialist position was contained in a resolution written by Hillquit and adopted by the 1910 national convention: “The Socialist Party favors all legislative measures tending to prevent the immigration of strike-breakers and contract laborers. . . . . The Party is opposed to the exclusion of any immigrants on account of their race or nationality, and demands that the United States be at all times maintained as a free asylum for all men and women persecuted by the governments of their countries on account of their politics, religion or race.” [Italics mine.]
Only in one election, that of 1914, did London’s vote exceed that of the party as a whole by a margin greater than that normally to be expected in the case of a “strong” candidate. The reasons for this are to be sought . . . in the specific circumstances of the campaign. . . . One is the intense resentment aroused by an attempted frame-up of a number of ILGWU leaders on a murder indictment. Their trial was pending at the time of the 1914 election—and London was the lawyer for the ILGWU, so that a vote for him could have represented a fairly obvious form of protest against the indictment. Another factor, probably less important, is that the Bull Moose movement was still fairly strong in 1914, and a cursory inspection of the election returns seems to indicate that London got most of the Bull Moose vote in the district. He may also have received the support of William Sulzer’s followers in the district, resentful at Tammany’s impeachment of the latter as Governor. In subsequent elections, of course, London had the advantage of incumbency. . . .
All this, of course, does not prove Mr. Himmelfarb is wrong in his Marxist belief that East Side Jews voted in terms of their interests, or what they thought were their interests, more frequently than in terms of ideologies. But to a great many of them—and even many who did not vote Socialist—the Socialist party seemed the representative of those interests in a political and economic sense. Tammany, however, represented a lot of immediate personal interests—the bag of coal from the district club in wintertime, the job on the city payroll, the peddler’s license, or freedom from police harassment, and so forth. (Also, the Socialists were suspect on religious grounds; one of the key issues when London finally lost his seat in Congress was the charge that he did not eat kosher meat.) There are always lots of immediate personal reasons for disregarding the broad interests of society and the general moral principles applicable to political life; tribalism is only one of the golden calves to which they may be sacrificed.
Maurice J. Goldbloom
New York City
To the Editor:
I am currently engaged in writing a biography of Morris Hillquit, and I was amazed to read Milton Himmelfarb’s remarks.
During the election campaigns of 1906 and 1908, Hillquit emphasized the horrible sufferings of the immigrants in the tenement ghetto. Since General Bingham, the police commissioner, had written that half of the criminals in New York were Russian Jews, Himmelfarb maintains that the East Siders considered Hillquit “the Socialist Bingham.” . . .
The argument is the same as saying that Negroes equate the civil rights supporter who points out the terrible living conditions in Harlem with the racist who insists the Negro is socially and morally inferior. It is as far-fetched an argument today as it was in 1906, and no more than a smear and a slander.
The same is true when Himmelfarb lumps Hillquit with some radicals who played down Nazism’s persecution of Jews. . . . This is an affront to the thousands of socialists—including Hillquit’s closest friends—who fought Nazism from its very inception.
Himmelfarb, basing himself on Gorenstein’s thesis, explains that Hillquit was defeated in 1906 and 1908 because “the Socialist party was against immigration.” Whatever one now wants to say about Hillquit’s ideas on immigration, he did lead the fight against incorporating literacy qualifications in the Immigration Act. Hillquit’s thesis on contract labor was mainly an intellectual exercise for the East Sider. But if the literacy qualifications had been adopted, the flow of East European immigrants to America would have been greatly restricted. This was of immediate concern to the East Sider. Still, Hillquit’s vote did decrease from 3,616 in 1906 to 2,483 in 1908, and perhaps the immigration issue was an important factor.
However, Himmelfarb goes on to say that despite the corruption (the Tammany chieftains in the 9th CD bought votes at five dollars a head), Goldfogle, the Tammany candidate, really reflected the needs and aspirations of the East Siders. This is stretching the facts. Gorenstein and all other sources describe the huge rallies that the Socialist party held night after night during the campaigns. The attendance ranged up to 25,000. Yet only 11,698 voted in the 1908 election, out of a population of approximately 350,000. Women could not vote, and only 18.6 per cent of the males were naturalized citizens. Any conclusions based on the voting patterns of such a miniscule minority must be considered speculative and therefore open to question. This is certainly true with regard to Himmelfarb’s conclusions.
Washington, D. G.
Mr. Himmelfarb writes:
If Mr. Goldbloom and Mr. Stack had read the paper by Arthur Gorenstein in the March Publication of the American Jewish Historical Society, they might not have written their letters, because they add nothing solid to what the paper says. (It has all their electoral numerology, and more.) Goldbloom not only would have found an instance in which Hillquit and London were candidates in the same election, but also might have thought better about trying to whitewash the Socialists’ immigration policy. Gorenstein is familiar with that ringing statement of theirs, and it impresses him no more than it does historians of American Socialism like Shannon and Kipnis.
Goldbloom’s conclusion, especially, sounds the true Socialist Bourbon note: to be distracted by an issue like kosher food is tribal; the tribalists also cared tribally about immigration; to refuse to sacrifice to the golden calf of tribalism and to prefer the broad interests of society (e.g., by opposing “the abuse of immigration”—Hillquit’s expression—or later by holding fast to a pacifist isolationism) is a moral principle; so three cheers for the Socialists, then and now.
Does Mr. Stack really think that I said Hillquit and his friends were not anti-Nazi? What I said, agreeing with Paul Jacobs in the New Leader, was that the radicals of the 1930′s seemed to be aware of everything about Nazism except that it was out to murder the Jews. Mr. Stack, annoyed that Hillquit was called the Socialist Bingham, draws an analogy between Harlem today and the East Side fifty years ago. Harlem will appreciate someone who attacks exploiting landlords, but not if he gets too graphic about the degradation they cause.
Mr. Rich rants because he is upset, understandably. Since his movement does not have much of a future, the glorious past becomes all the more sacred to it. Whoever with impious hands touches the hagiology, let him be accursed.
The Jewish masses did so love and respect the Socialists, Rich says, because the Socialists loved and respected them. Was that why Abe Cahan wrote in Bleter fun mayn lebn that “the number of intelligent people reading a Yiddish newspaper or book was quite small . . . our masses in those days were scarcely advanced”?
Look at all that Yiddish work we did, Rich says; would we have done it if we were not zealous for Jewish culture and survival? He has chosen to forget that for Gahan and many others Yiddish was an unfortunate but necessary second-best to Russian, or German, or English. He can hardly have forgotten, if only because there was a long debate about it recently in his own paper, the Forward, that in the Jewish Socialist Bund the doctrine then known as neutralism (i.e., impartiality between assimilation and survival)was dominant, though not binding. The greatest Bundist of them all was Vladimir Medem, whose epitaph in a Workmen’s Circle cemetery here is “the legend of the Jewish Labor movement,” and he was that kind of neutralist. Yet Medem’s European Bund was more pro-Jewish than most of the Socialists in “Jewish work” in America.
Clearly, the radicals I talked about in my comments on the Jacobs article were not Communists. I called them the children of the Hillquist Socialists, and clearly I did not mean flesh-and-blood children necessarily. Rich now defends the Socialists, but during the 30′s and 40′s he was against them. The Forward was a big thing in the Social Democratic Federation, which split from the Socialists because it supported the New Deal and rejected isolationism. For the Social Democrats, rightly, Norman Thomas was the man who preached that as long as you had not been cured of your liver ailment, you had no right to protect yourself against a thug set to hit you on the head with a club, (The metaphor was by Reinhold Niebuhr, not a Social Democrat.) Among the Socialists and other radicals were Jews. They were anti-Nazi, of course, but they were also isolationists (even, unlike the Communists, after Hitler sent his troops into Russia), and they would not stoop to the parochialism of worrying about what the Nazis were doing to the Jews of Europe.