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February 16: The Madison Square Garden Riot

February 16, 2015

xc2000-53-2-001At a mass Socialist rally at Madison Square Garden on this date in 1934, organized to protest the massacre of 1,000 Austrian socialists by the fascistic regime of Engelbert Dollfuss, some 5,000 members of the Communist Party engaged in disruptive, brawling tactics to prevent Matthew Woll of the American Federation of Labor and New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia from speaking. The result was a riot between Communists and Socialists that marked the zenith of the crazily sectarian Communist strategy of branding non-Communist socialists as the “social fascist” enemy. “Chairs were flung from the balcony,” the New York Times reported, “and shrieks of women, mingled with boos, yells, and catcalls, drowned out the voices of speakers.” Jews made up nearly a third of the Communist Party USA’s membership by the mid-1930s, by some estimates, and were by then “the only [by then] native-born ethnic group into which the party made recruiting inroads,” according to historian Harvey Klehr. At its height, however, the CPUSA never had more than 100,000 members, with about twice that number under its influence through the International Workers Order, of which the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order was the largest affiliate, with about a third of the membership. Months after the Madison Square Garden riot, Communists recognized the reality of Nazism’s takeover in Germany and launched their “Popular Front” strategy, but other socialist movements were understandably slow to warm up to them.

“As Arthur Liebman has pointed out in his study, Jews and the Left, the CPUSA during the Third Period appointed only non-Jews to head the national Party; tacitly encouraged the adoption of Americanized names; repeatedly sent Jewish organizers into districts with small Jewish populations; deemphasized issues of Jewish cultural concern — including the preservation of Yiddish; singled out Zionists and Jewish capitalists for special criticism, and generally took Jewish members, whether working or middle class, for granted.” —Michael Furmanovsky