by Henry Srebrnik
This past May, I attended a conference on “Jews and the Left” held at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York. Some 240 participants, from as far away as Chile, England, Israel and Lithuania, came to hear papers dealing with Jews in both the old and new lefts of the 20th century, and the role of Jewish women in these movements.
Among the distinguished speakers were Harvey Klehr of Emory University, Tony Michels of the University of Wisconsin, Riv-Ellen Prell of the University of Minnesota, Paul Berman of New York University, Antony Polonsky of Brandeis, Alice Kessler-Harris of Columbia, and Michael Walzer of Princeton. There was plenty of heated debate and discussion.
A few days later, I took in the play “4000 Miles,” by Amy Herzog, at Lincoln Center. It’s the story of the 91-year-old widow of a once-celebrated Communist writer and activist, and her 21-year-old grandson, whose life has been shaped by post-1960s culture.
All of this got me thinking about the political link between the two left-wing movements. The so-called “Old Left” was led by the Communist Party (CPUSA), and that organization almost collapsed after 1956, when its members learned, to their sorrow, that the Soviet state they had been worshiping for decades was, under Joseph Stalin, actually a murderous tyranny.
The political space the Communists left behind would, within a few years, be filled by a less dogmatic “New Left,” led by student radicals in groups like SDS, the Students for a Democratic Society, founded just four years later.
But the two are more of a seamless web than many people realize, despite the fact that the newer radical movement showed disdain for the hide-bound old Communists.
The connecting thread is the Jews of New York.
In 1939, according to Professor Klehr, some 40 percent of the 39,000 CPUSA members were Jewish, and concentrated in big cities, New York in particular. Half of the party’s cultural apparatus, centered in New York, was Jewish, added Tony Michels.
When Henry Wallace ran for president on the Communist-inspired Progressive Party ticket in 1948, about one third of his vote came from Jews.
Indeed, the history of American Communism “cannot be understood without Jews,” said Professor Michels.
The party collapsed in the 1950s, and by 1960 had just 3,000 members. But the children of Jewish Communists, so called “red diaper babies,” would fill the ranks of the leadership of the New Left.
People like Mark Rudd, who led a student revolt at Columbia University in 1968, were typical.
Of the fifty-nine individuals who gathered in Port Huron, Michigan in June 1962 to issue the SDS Port Huron Statement, the most influential manifesto that ever came from the student left, between one-third to one-half were Jews, according to Columbia University professor Todd Gitlin, a former president of SDS.
We can see how the one movement morphed into the other by looking at two seminal cultural events: the Peekskill riots of 1949 and the iconic Woodstock music festival twenty years later.
The catalyst for the Peekskill rioting was an announced concert by African-American singer Paul Robeson, known for his Communist affiliations. The concert, organized as a benefit for the Civil Rights Congress, a Communist-directed group, was scheduled to take place on August 27 just north of Peekskill, NY.
Before Robeson arrived, a mob of locals attacked concert-goers with baseball bats and rocks. The local police arrived hours later and did little to intervene. Thirteen people were seriously injured, Robeson was lynched in effigy and a cross was seen burning on an adjacent hillside.
Many of those who came were Jews in various Communist-front organizations. This was the era of McCarthyism, and the Communist Party was on the defensive.
Fast-forward 20 years to August 15-18, 1969 and the height of the counter-culture. The Woodstock Festival, like the Peekskill concert, was held outside New York, in the Catskills, long a Jewish vacation area. (In the 1940s, many of the resorts were frequented by the same left-wing Jews who were at Peekskill.) There was more of a Jewish connection to Woodstock than people remember. It, too, had a Jewish flavor; many of the singers and groups were Jews.
The venue where it took place was owned by Max Yasgur, a Jewish farmer born in New York City, whose parents were East European Jewish immigrants. Most of his non-Jewish neighbors opposed the festival, but unlike in 1949 at Peekskill, there was no violence. The amorphous New Left, with its music and literature, had penetrated more deeply into the American mainstream than its predecessor. After all, it was not bound to the Soviet Union and had no need to apologize for that country’s misdeeds.
But the Old and the New left were both, in their different ways, part of American Jewish history.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown, PEI, Canada.