by Rosalyn Baxandall
Discussed in this essay: Meyer London, A Biography of the Socialist New York Congressman, 1871-1926, by Gordon Goldberg. McFarland and Co., 2013, 328 pages.
Meyer London (1871-1926), the first Russian-Jewish immigrant in the House of Representatives and the first socialist from the East Coast (Victor Berger, the other Jewish socialist in Congress, hailed from Wisconsin), served for three terms representing the Lower East Side. He introduced legislation for social insurance — health, unemployment, disability and old age — in 1916. He cast the lone vote against the war with Austria-Hungary in 1917. He was an ardent fighter for unrestricted immigration, and trade unions.
He was also my great uncle, my maternal grandfather’s brother, but I never knew him or his family, probably because my grandfather died before I was born, and my parents were communists while Meyer London was a center/rightwing social democrat. Seldom the clans did cross or clash.
During the women’s liberation movement in the late 1960s and ’70s, while doing research on radical women like Rose Schneiderman and Leonora O’Reilly, I read about how they resented campaigning for London over and over again — resented it because at the end of the shirtwaist strike in 1909 he had helped to negotiate the Protocols of Peace, which the overwhelmingly female strikers never were given an opportunity to ratify. The workers gained a fifty-five hour work week, double pay for overtime, abolition of subcontracting and of charges for electrical power, as well as a board of workers and management to work out arbitration, and preferential union treatment. They did not, however, win a closed shop improvement in sanitary and safety conditions, which became a telling issue in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, one of the biggest industrial disasters, which killed 146 mainly young women workers in 1911. Little did I know then, but London had to compromise with Edward Filene, Louis Marshal, Louis Brandeis, and the other mediators even to secure that preferential union treatment.
A 1980 thesis about London, “The Lone Socialist Vote: A Political Study of Meyer London”, by William Freiburger, is also critical of London and notes his condescending attitude towards the unorganized masses. Freiburger felt that London underestimated the importance of women’s suffrage; he just seemed to think that of course women should vote and are equal, and he couldn’t understand why others made such a fuss about it. However, he was much better than most socialists on issues of both gender and race.
London clearly saw exploitation and oppression in the capitalist world he inhabited, but he seemed to retain the expectation that capitalists could be reasoned with if they only knew about the worker’s suffering. So rather than emphasize class struggle, he chose constructive proposals whose purpose was the preservation of peace. He believed that President Wilson was a man of peace even though he was preparing for war, and took a long while to become disillusioned with the president. London’s assumption that America was different, a land of progress, opportunity and freedom, obscured his socialist vision.
The only biography of Meyer London until the new one by Gordon Goldberg was Harry Rogoff’s, An East Side Epic: The Life and Work of Meyer London (Vanguard, 1930), a rather dull hagiography laden with rich, unanalyzed information. The book was commissioned by the Meyer London Memorial Committee, and made London a virtual saint.
Every writer on Meyer London seems to mention that he actually “was one of those rare human beings who can live their lives in harmony with their beliefs” (Melech Epstein, Profiles of Eleven, 1965). Unlike most socialists who ran for office — such as Morris Hillquit, who lived well on the Upper West Side and had a lucrative law practice‚ London lived most of his life on the Lower East Side in a poorly furnished flat. Often his wife Anna, a dentist who shared his beliefs, and their daughter Isabel, lived for long periods on bread and coffee. As a labor lawyer, when unions seemed pressed to pay their rent, not only did London refuse fees but he gave them the little money he had. During long strikes such as the twelve-week garment trade strike in 1912, London would give himself totally to the strike and live at strike headquarters. The furriers union once gave him $2,000 dollars and a fur coat and gold watch because he refused to charge them; he returned the money and gave the gold watch to a needy worker, but the fur coat had been given to his wife directly and she warned him not to return it. There are dozens of other stories about his overwhelming generosity and his devotion to the cause. Just when his law practice began to prosper, for example, he accompanied two Jewish Bund members from Russia for many months and introduced them to American audiences as they toured the U.S.
Goldberg’s rather apolitical, straightforward, nonjudgmental, thorough book was originally a thesis for Lehigh University in 1970. It reads easily and includes up-to-date historical material, but very little about London’s personal life. This is understandable because Harry Rogoff inexplicably destroyed London’s papers after writing his biography of him. However, London’s daughter was alive until recently, and Goldberg could have interviewed her or included mention of the few letters other family members have kept.
London was an evolutionary socialist, and stressed education, tolerance, and electoral politics as means to transform capitalism to socialism. He didn’t think mass strikes or violent revolutionary upheavals were effective political strategies. Because he favored the America Federation of Labor craft unions over the “one big union” concept of the Industrial Workers of the World, he alienated the left wing of the Socialist Party, which tried to reprimand him for his compromising views several times, and mostly didn’t favor his candidacy — but they didn’t prevail because his constituents adored him.
Knowing far more history than most Congressmen, London possessed an idealist faith in the American democratic system and historical evolution. Modest rather than flamboyant, he knew we couldn’t make immediate and drastic changes in the living conditions of his Lower East Side constituents, but he believed he could educate Congress and serve as a teacher of a new humane philosophy of social conscience. As part of this education process, he kept in touch with his community about his work and the work of Congress, both in person and in newsletters and reports. He also said at his first electoral victory celebration (1914), held in Madison Square Garden with between 12,000 and 15,000 in attendance:
I do not expect to accomplish miracles in Congress. I expect to deliver a message. I expect to accomplish one thing that is not on the program of the socialist Party, and that is this; let the people meet a different type of Jew from the 12th Congressional District. The East Side wants no more representatives of the type of Goldfogle . . .
Goldfogel was a Tammany Hall politician and a religious Jew who rarely showed up in Congress, only in temple. London had a stellar Congressional attendance record, and was respected for his intellect and often allowed to speak on the floor longer than others. He was not a practicing Jew, however, and thereby alienated Orthodox Jews. Yet unlike Hillquit, who Christianized his name before running for office in the Socialist Party in New York, London identified himself as Jewish and spoke and wrote in Yiddish. He knew Russian and Hebrew as well, of course, had a slight accent, and spoke rapidly so that the Congressional scribes sometimes couldn’t understand him accurately.
London had an impact on Congress because he talked learnedly about national unemployment insurance, child labor, and an eight-hour day for railroad workers, against literacy tests for immigrants, and against Prohibition. In 1917, he won bipartisan support in the House for a commission to make recommendations to the President and the House of Representatives concerning mandatory health insurance. His approach, a commission, was the one followed two decades later by Franklin Roosevelt in developing his version of the Social Security Act. President Wilson, in his first inaugural address, had talked about finding an appropriate governmental role in health care, so London was encouraged. However, his timing was unfortunate: Since Germany had social insurance and World War I was raging, Americans considered it Bismarckian and were prejudiced towards it. (Soon enough, with the Russian revolution, government-sponsored insurance would be called Bolshevik or communist.)
A founder of the first chapter of the Socialist Party in New York City, London felt distaste for all of the in-fighting that went on in socialist politics and rarely went to party meetings. However, at the first Socialist Party Congress he made an exception and took real offense at the majority report on immigration, which he found racist. As he said to those who made the report Berger, Hillquit and others who wanted a quota established to limit Asian immigration:
You violate the fundamental principle of Socialism, which prohibits you from discrimination against a race. One of the most painful things I have been acquainted with is the murder of the Chinese by thugs and ruffians, and every time I saw a Jew abused by a thug or ruffian I was thinking of the oppression of the Armenians and Poles in the Russian Empire. When you say you will exclude people because they are Japanese and because they are Chinese and because they are Hindoos, you violate the Decalogue, one of the elementary principles of International Socialism.
Unlike many other socialists, London also supported anti-lynching legislation and was commended by the NAACP.
World War I, which he tried to prevent from occurring with peace proposals and by voting against war appropriations, squashed his hope that socialism could be achieved through gradual growth of mass social democratic electoral movements. The declaration of war split socialist parties in the U.S. and Europe. London saw that the war only benefited the capitalists and their imperialist desires for markets and colonial conquest, while harming workers. He made this known in eloquent, traditional Marxist speeches in New York and in Washington.
With war declared in 1917, the U.S. Socialist party came out strongly against it and called on the working class to resist. With this resolution there was a mass exodus of pro-war intellectuals from the party. For London, the anti-war stance provoked a crisis of conscience. It was not an easy matter to disobey his party, but he was also too scrupulous and independent to tow the party line — and he believed it was his duty as a Congressman not to weaken or hamper his country militarily. Therefore he did not vote against the bill to issue war bonds, and he voted present on the war appropriations bill. According to Freiburger, his constituents were more leftwing than he was.
These actions meant that leftwing Socialists sought to have him censured, even though he had voted against the war, was heckled in Congress as pro-Kaiser, and was vehemently against the Espionage and Sedition Laws, which allowed the government to jail and deport anarchist, socialists, and other radicals and destroy their headquarters.
The Bolshevik revolution added fuel to the war hysteria and turned London’s exposed position into a torment. As Melech Epstein explains, London was “a democrat to the depth of his soul. He could not sympathize with the Lenin-Trotsky seizure of power . . . however, the idea of an allied American military intervention in Russian affairs was as abhorrent to him as it was to most radicals and liberals . . . His rationalizations of the Bolsheviks did not mitigate the hostility of his colleagues [in Congress], nor did it satisfy the pro-Bolshevik element in his party. London was indeed a lonely man. But no one could overlook the courage of his convictions or the integrity of his character.”
In April 1916, the editor of a Zionist publication asked London, “What would be the most practical way of solving the Jewish question abroad in the readjustment that is to come after the war?” London answered that he believed it was the ‘duty of the Jew everywhere to remain a Jew as long as the Jew in any country of the world is being discriminated against” He added that “the great masses of Jews in all countries of the world prefer to be part of the people among whom they live.” Two years later, following the Balfour Declaration promising British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine (in support of which the International Ladies Garment Workers, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and the American Federation of Labor passed formal declarations), London was asked by Zionist groups to introduce a bill in Congress supporting a Jewish homeland for the Jewish people. London, in favor of presenting the Balfour Amendment to an international peace conference, nevertheless insisted that the Palestinian Arabs be consulted. As a socialist, he believed in the principle of self-determination, which, he said, forbids forcible annexations of small nationalities. He also foresaw that there would be trouble between the Jews and Arabs in the future if the Balfour amendment were ratified. His defiance of Zionist sentiment was courageous, but is made insignificant in the Goldberg book. (Other sources, including the publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, have portrayed him inaccurately as supporting the Balfour Amendment and “look[ing] forward to the Jewish homeland in Palestine.”) In fact, London paid dearly for his lack of Zionist enthusiasm. He was attacked immediately and accused of being more detrimental to the Jewish cause than a non-Jew. Jacob Schiff, Louis Marshall, Louis Brandeis, and Rabbi Stephen Wise, all prominent Jews with money and power, came to the Lower East Side to denounce him as an enemy of Jewish progress. This seemed to have helped him lose the election of 1918 — although he was back in Congress two years later.
With the House of Representatives becoming more conservative due to the fears over the Russian revolution and foreigners in general, Meyer London fought against the reactionary, jingoist tide and the business interests that were eager to reduce corporate taxes. Although tired of struggling with Congressional conservatives, he agreed to run again in 1922. By that time, however, many of his working-class constituents had become a bit more prosperous and left the Lower East Side, and Meyer lost the election. He spent the next four years devoting his energy to the Socialist Party, which was losing ground to the new Communist Party, especially in the unions.
On June 6th, 1926, London was reading Chekov’s short stories while crossing the street at Second Avenue and E. 15th Street, and was run over by a streetcar. Before dying, he asked that the driver of the streetcar not be charged. London’s death set loose a storm of mourning. On June 8th, 30,000 people filed by his casket at the Forward building. The New York Times reported, “Many wept openly as they passed the building.” The funeral two days later was another spectacular tribute, and the Forward called it “the biggest and most emotional funeral that New York ever saw.” He was buried near Sholem Aleichem in the Poet’s Corner of Brooklyn’s Mount Carmel Cemetery. London would be honored by his generation, who named the Rand School library after him as well as Public School 2 on Henry Street, placed a plaque on the modest building where he lived at 274 East Broadway, and named a World War 11 naval ship after him. If London had lived longer, he would have seen many of his proposals put into practice in the New Deal.
Hopefully Goldberg’s book will reignite elements of Meyer London’s civic spirit in these mean and unjust times.
Rosalyn Baxandall’s books include Dear Sisters: Dispatches From The Women’s Liberation Movement (with Linda Gordon), Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened (with Elizabeth Ewen), and Words on Fire: The Life and Writing of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, among other works. She is an emeritus professor of women’s studies and American studies at SUNY Old Westbury, and now teaches at CUNY Labor School.