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Identity Politics Vs. Class Struggle: A False Choice

Brian Dolber
November 2, 2017


by Brian Dolber

JUST PRIOR TO HIS DEPARTURE from the White House, alt-right leader Steve Bannon told the American Prospect, “The longer [the Democrats] talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

The statement may seem odd from the former editor of Breitbart, which he himself called “the platform for the alt-right.” But Bannon’s strategic goal is clear. He hopes liberal identity politics will divide the working class, enabling the right to solidify its white nationalist base by offering whites the hope of economic security to the exclusion of others.

To a large extent, he and his alt-right movement have already been successful. By adhering to a contradictory worldview that Nancy Fraser has called “progressive neoliberalism,” — maintained by “mainstream currents of new social movements (feminism, antiracism, multiculturalism, and LGBTQ rights), on the one side, and high-end “symbolic” and service-based business sectors (Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood), on the other” — the Democratic Party has lost the reins of all three branches of government.

In order to beat Bannon — and the millions of people and a billions of dollars that stand behind him — we need to build movements that break the identity vs. economics binary.

This is not a new conundrum. On the 120th anniversary of its founding, we might consider how the Jewish Labor Bund helped create a multi-ethnic, working-class movement in the United States during the 20th century. Founded in 1897 in Vilna, the Bund put forward a new vision that challenged Orthodox Judaism, bourgeois assimilation, reductive Marxism, and nationalist Zionism. Influenced by the thought of Chaim Zhitlovsky, Bundists understood that the violence of the tsarist regime served the interests of capital. That violence was, in turn, facilitated by the control of minority ethnic groups by Russian cultural institutions.

In response, the Bund advocated that all ethnic groups be given equal status, and that Jews develop revolutionary organizations — political parties, unions, and militia — in order to advance their goals and protect themselves as an autonomous national group. This understanding, that culture was constitutive of class struggle, would influence a generation of Jewish radical immigrants in the U.S. These activists would develop a distinctly Jewish working-class culture in the U.S. through modern media — newspapers, radio, and theater — that helped secure their position in the New Deal of the 1930s. While the growth of a Jewish middle-class largely moderated these politics in the next decades, that mobility was made possible by radical struggle.

Of course, many things have changed in the last century for both America and American Jews. It is unlikely to say the least that a new movement comprised of Yiddish speaking Jewish workers is about to spring forth. But beyond the Bund’s specifics, its form and function — a movement binding communal identity and radical economic demands — might inform our understanding of what is possible today.

B.C. Vladeck and the Jewish Daily Forward

SIX YEARS AFTER ITS FOUNDING, the Bund gained momentum in the wake of the Kishinev pogrom. Fifty Jews had been killed and hundreds injured during Passover, after blood libel accusations.

“Radicalism was in the air,” reflected the Jewish Daily Forward newspaper’s business manager B.C. Vladeck, years later.

[caption id=“attachment_64901” align=“alignleft” width=“250”] B.C. Vladeck[/caption]

Born Baruch Charney, the 16-year-old library assistant in Minsk, returned home from his radical economics discussion group one day in 1903 to be greeted by the tsarist police and sent to prison for dissident activities. Although he left prison the following year, he would serve a second sentence after traveling through the Jewish Pale of Settlement, organizing workers in the needle trades to strike for the eight-hour day.

“You felt that a tide was rising. I joined the movement as casually as a boy on the West Side might join the Democratic Party.”

After becoming enamored with the American liberal tradition in prison, and spending three years as an orator and organizer during the revolutionary period, Charney helped bridge the radicalism of the early twentieth century with the modern labor movement. Immigrating to the United States in 1908, he changed his name to B.C. Vladeck.

While Jewish radicals who came to the United States before the Bund’s rise used Yiddish as a mere organizing tool, aiming to “[disavow] all forms of Jewish collective identity” in hopes the abolition of class differences would bring cultural assimilation, those who immigrated after the 1905 revolution understood their politics in particularly Jewish terms.

This view would become strategically helpful in the wake of World War I and the Bolshevik revolution. While other radical and foreign-language newspapers in the United States folded due to economic pressures and censorship, the Jewish Daily Forward, with a circulation over 200,000, grew in prominence. Vladeck, named the paper’s business manager in 1918, developed a strategy to secure national advertising. By opening offices responsible for local additions, Vladeck hoped to secure the resources to sustain the publication, moving beyond relying on small New York area businesses and charitable contributions for resources.

Although advertisers were skeptical, Vladeck and his advertising manager Henry Greenfield argued that Jewish socialists could be good consumers. While the Jewish bourgeoisie read the English-language press, and other Yiddish publications served religious Jews “more concerned with the problems of the next world,” Forward readers were secular, politically aware and employed. As union members, they had relatively steady incomes. Frequent solicitations in the trade press professed that Forward readers had the “capacity for the absorption of meritorious food and grocery products, dry goods and drug articles,” and claimed they were “Americanized immigrants — workingmen, business men, professional men — whose mother tongue is Yiddish.”

[caption id=“attachment_64902” align=“alignright” width=“300”] The Forward building in downtown Manhattan[/caption]

Elaborating on Bundist politics within the context of the U.S.’s growing consumer economy, Vladeck highlighted the ethnic distinctiveness of the Forward readership, rather than their politics. The paper constructed immigrant Jews as cosmopolitans with an interest in both public and commercial affairs in the 1920s. It promoted films, radio programs, and Yiddish theater, integrating photography to foster the celebrity status of leaders within Jewish politics and culture. Although the Forward privileged stories about global and U.S. politics, with particular attention to Russia, Palestine, and by the 1930s, Nazi Germany, the paper’s positions issues began to shift too, ultimately aligning with anti-Communism and a left-Zionism.

Vladeck’s strategy enabled the paper not only to stay afloat, but to run budget surpluses for its publisher, the non-profit Forward Association. The Association could then make contributions to Progressive organizations, Jewish organizations, and labor struggles.

Not everyone supported these transformations, and Vladeck and editor Abraham Cahan faced much scrutiny, particularly from members and supporters of the Communist Party (CP). Some were upset about running ads from the Ford Motor Company, and dubbed the paper the Ford-ward. Others believed the paper lost touch with its radical roots, particularly as it became increasingly sympathetic to the Zionist project, and content reflected the paper’s commercial structure.

Worker education and strike support in the Garment Unions

WHILE VLADECK AND THE FORWARD COMMODIFIED Bundism, other members of his generation sought to bring an emphasis on movement culture directly into labor organizations.

Born one year prior to Vladeck, in 1885, Fannia Cohn came from a merchant family. Their emphasis on education, however, worked to radicalize her, and she joined the Bund at 16. After her brother was killed in a pogrom in 1904, Cohn left Minsk for New York. There, she remained committed to the workers’ movement. She declined financial assistance from her family and went to work in the small sweatshops of the white goods industry.

[caption id=“attachment_64903” align=“alignleft” width=“195”] Fannia Cohn in 1934[/caption]

Cohn’s Bundist perspective and her middle-class background helped her connect workers on the shop floor to elite Progressive reformers who were developing programs for “moral uplift.” She developed worker-education programs that could support strikes, first in 1908, then in the famous Uprising of the 20,000 that occurred in the following year. Through lively pickets and parades, Jewish women workers became empowered political actors, breaking the norms of femininity. Drawing the entire community together, the strike established the garment unions as formidable organizations.

While male union bureaucrats (in a union of mostly women) worked to enforce the Protocols of Peace, which secured collective bargaining rights in exchange for the right to strike, ILGWU Local 25 — New York’s shirtwaist makers — instituted courses in trade union instruction under the direction of Barnard professor Julie Poyntz beginning in 1913, using cultural activities to develop the rank-in-file. The next year, the International as a whole would create an Education Department, and Cohn was made its organizing secretary. By 1919, 10,000 students — mostly immigrant women — were enrolled in classes, and 7,000 attended union-sponsored plays, concerts, and lectures.

The next decade was a nadir for unions. ILGWU leaders sought to cut what they viewed as extraneous expenses while fighting costly battles against a Communist insurgent movement in Local 25. By 1926, the ILGWU was $2 million in debt. The general executive board cut its support for its newspaper, Justice, and its Yiddish and Italian editions.

Moving away from didacticism and theory, Cohn hoped to develop a labor press that would resonate with young workers who lived in modern culture. In particular, she aimed to help bring women into the movement, who tended to remain more connected to their ethnic identities as men in the movement sought to assimilate and make their way into the power structure. Through the 1920s, Cohn voiced commitments not just to yiddishkayt but also to a broader multiculturalism and multilingualism that would enable the growth of a diverse labor movement in the New Deal era.

[caption id=“attachment_64904” align=“alignright” width=“300”] ACWA trademark[/caption]

Similarly, J.B.S. Hardman, the Education Director for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) sought to preserve its polyglot press. Born Jacob Salutsky, he also became active in the Bund at a young age during the revolutionary period. Exiled from Russia after his third arrest, he left first for Paris, and then the United States in 1909 at the age of 27. With a strong commitment to democratic ideals, Salutsky helped found Di frayhayt as a counterweight to the Forward’s rightward drift, but jumped ship when it became affiliated with the Communist Party in 1922.

At the ACWA, Hardman struggled to develop media that would serve its diverse membership. Members were in a growing number of cities, and spoke thirty different languages. Hardman believed that “no national majority should have a legal right to suppress [Yiddish] language and [Jewish] cultural aspirations.” Linking Bundism and American liberalism, he understood that democracy necessitated the protection of cultural and political diversity. Thus, he defended maintaining a weekly English-language journal, the Advance, as well as the preservation of foreign-language publications — not just Yiddish, but also Bohemian, Lithuanian, and Polish.

While Hardman was most passionate about the power of the union press, Cohn remained committed to engaging workers through cultural activities. Emerging from an environment where the Yiddish theater was enormously popular, Cohn developed labor plays to be performed by members, making use of song, dance, and satire while teaching lessons about union history and the importance of organizing.

“It is said that no country can exist without its songs,” Cohn stated. “The labor movement, too, must have its songs, its pageantry, its theatre, in order to inspire the workers in their daily struggle.”

While Cohn and Hardman both struggled to maintain such programs through the 1920s, they would become indispensable to an emerging national labor movement in the next decade.

New Deal Culture

WHILE THE 1920s is often seen as a moment of factionalism within the Left, as Communists, Socialists, and “bread and butter” trade unionists battled with each other, Jewish labor’s maintenance of worker culture in print and in person provided strategies that propelled an explosion of worker organizing in the wake of the Depression. By 1934, unions recovered the membership losses they had suffered over the prior ten years, and represented one-third of U.S. workers. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the Communist Party (CP) would both integrate these approaches through the New Deal era, not only to win shop floor victories, but to produce a new vision of U.S. democracy that challenged fascist movements at home and abroad.

Within a new, modern media environment, worker education and cultural production moved from the shops floors and the printed pages to the air. Through its reliance on advertising, the Forward Association had the resources necessary to acquire the Socialist radio station WEVD. Vladeck brought his commodification of ethnicity to the airwaves, as WEVD created programs not just in Yiddish, but in an array of languages spoken by New York’s working class. The funding from these commercial programs could be used to sustain politically-oriented and educational programs in English.

Thus, WEVD reflected a Bundist influence, fusing together multilingual workers into a unified political movement. The program The Voice of Local 89, in particular, worked to dissuade members from developing fascist allegiances by connecting the largely Italian membership to a broader worker movement.

While Fannia Cohn remained marginalized by union leadership through the 1930s, her ideas were adopted by ILGWU Educational Director Mark Starr, the son of a British minister. Although she resented Starr’s appointment, she recognized the need for education programs to organize “out of town” workers who might otherwise fall “prey to propaganda of employers or even fascistic groups.”

Among the most important of these efforts was the musical revue Pins and Needles. Starring union members, it became the longest-running musical on Broadway at the time, toured the nation, and was invited to perform for the Roosevelts at the White House. By 1938, Starr expected ILGWU programs including movies, radio shows, and live dramatic performances to reach 265,000 members.

J.B.S. Hardman’s commitment to democracy within the trade union press helped to mediate labor’s more bureaucratic tendencies. Hardman also helped shape the thinking around the importance of a free press in the 1930s and 1940s. He called for the formation of a Free Press Authority to stop “the encroaching of the newspaper industry over the Bill of Rights,” as the need to counter fascist propaganda through mass media became essential.

The fight for labor at home could be mobilized against antisemitic fascism abroad. While bourgeois Jewish organizations feared that challenges to fascism would appear to be an explicitly Jewish effort, Vladeck understood that Nazi Germany’s abuse of worker rights was connected to its antisemitism. Having helped to create a generation of working-class Jewish consumers, Vladeck founded the Jewish Labor Committee to organize a boycott of German goods. He called it “the most effective weapon” against fascism.

Looking backward, moving forward

BY THE 1940s, the leaders of the Bundist generation had either passed away, or had assimilated into the U.S. political mainstream. The Bund’s legacy helped inspire the forging of interethnic and multicultural alliances while improving living standards for Jews and other white ethnic workers. These politics were not without their blind spots. In order to preserve its power in the South, the Democratic Party systematically excluded African Americans from many of the benefits of the New Deal, leaving them to struggle for inclusion through the following decades. And anti-Communist sentiment, shared by many former Bundists who had been active in the Socialist Party, ultimately propelled a crackdown on all progressive activity in the McCarthy era.

The Bund’s legacy in the U.S. highlights that real gains can be made when we see that Bannon’s choice between “culture” and “economics” is a false one. Organizing through culture, with attention to race, gender, and ethnicity, has proven to be an effective way of generating support for labor movements.

The New Deal was far from perfect, but Bundists in the U.S. offered it the hope of multicultural democracy. While much has changed in the last 120 years — in the world and in the Jewish community — we again face a world of economic inequality, heightened racism, xenophobia, and antisemitism. Of course, the class reality for many Ashkenazi Jews has changed; many of us are now middle and upper middle class. But this fact doesn’t bely the lessons available to new movements from our Bundist past, whether or not those new movements are lead by Jews. So for all of us engaged in struggle presently, we may look to history to consider ways of forging a new left politics.

Brian Dolber is assistant professor of communication at California State University, San Marcos. He is the author of Media and Culture in the U.S. Jewish Labor Movement: Sweating for Democracy in the Interwar Era (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).