Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 9, 2014

Jews and the left

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 3:48 pm

A few days ago I received this query:

Mr. Proyect,

     I’m seeking some reading suggestions about the historical involvement of jewish folks in socialist organizations/parties etc, everywhere really but especially in the U.S. Do you have any suggestions? I’d appreciate any you had! Really just curiosity on my part, although I am a socialist.

As is my customary practice, I will reply to this publicly.

I would start with Paul Buhle’s scholarship. He co-edited a book titled “The Immigrant Left in the United States” with Dan Georgakas, a collection of articles that includes his own “Themes in American Jewish Radicalism” that is about 90 percent complete on Google books. Just do a search on the book’s title and you will find it.

Next I would look at Irving Howe’s “World of Our Fathers”. It has been many years since I read it but I am fairly sure that this study of the Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side will have a lot of material that you are looking for. Howe was a member of the Trotskyist movement in the USA who moved in a rightwing social democratic direction in the 1960s but I strongly recommend “World of Our Fathers”. I also recommend his memoir on life inside the Trotskyist movement titled “A Margin of Hope”. It is very much an examination of how Jews got involved with the left in the 1930s.

Speaking of the 1930s, I would also recommend the documentary “Arguing the World” that interviews Howe as well as a number of the CCNY students who became Trotskyists or Stalinists during the Depression. All of them were Jewish. The film can be seen on Amazon.com for a small rental fee.

Next there is Vivian Gornick’s “The Romance of American Communism”, an excellent study of the lives of ex-members, many of whom were Jewish. It has been many years since I read the book but consider it must-reading for trying to understand the CP experience.

It would also be worth looking at Walter and Mirian Schneir’s “Invitation to an Inquest”, a book on the Rosenbergs that mostly sought to refute the claim that they were Russian spies. Subsequently the Schneirs had to accept conclusive evidence that Julius was (but not Ethel) was a spy.  That does not invalidate much of their findings that the trial was a mockery of justice. The book has lots of interesting material on how Jews got involved with the CP. Like many Jewish members of the CP, the Rosenbergs remained culturally Jewish even as they adopted the atheism that goes along with Marxist politics. This is true of myself as well.

There’s also a magazine called Jewish Currents that has its origins in the Communist Party. (http://jewishcurrents.org/) The journal was edited for many years by Morris Schappes, who died in 2004 at the age of 97.

Moving a bit forward in time, there’s Mark Rudd’s article “Why were there so many Jews in SDS”. (http://www.markrudd.com/?about-mark-rudd/why-were-there-so-many-jews-in-sds-or-the-ordeal-of-civility.html). There’s also a chapter from the book “The Ballad of Ken and Emily: or, Tales from the Counterculture” titled “Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Growing Up as a New Left Jew” that should be of interest. (http://www.voicesfromtheunderground.com/articles/Abbie_Jerry.pdf).

That covers the American left. There’s also lots of interesting material about Jews and socialism in other countries. Fortunately Isaac Deutscher’s essay “The Non-Jewish Jew” can be read online at: http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/amersocialist/deutscher01.htm. It would probably be worth tracking down Deutscher’s book “The Non-Jewish Jew” that has that article plus others that deal with Jews on the left.

Rosa Luxemburg and other Jews are discussed in Jack Jacobs’s book “On Socialists and ‘the Jewish Question’ After Marx”. Corey Robin, a Brooklyn College professor with radical politics who is also observant, brought Jacobs’s scholarship to my attention on FB, writing “I read the manuscript version of one of Jack Jacobs’s chapters and I found it totally riveting. So much new archival information in this book (especially about Fromm and Marcuse and their relationship to Israel; a lot more too but I was really surprised by these revelations). Will be of major interest to those interested in either the Frankfurters or in Jewish Studies.” He was referring to this book: “The Frankfurt School, Jewish Lives, and Antisemitism”, which might not be of interest to you but deserves to be mentioned in light of Corey’s recommendation.

Finally, there are many articles on “Jews, Marxism and the Worker’s Movement” at the Marxism Internet Archives (http://www.marxists.org/subject/jewish/) that should be useful to you. Finally, the Wikipedia article on Jews and the left should open up other possible reading material: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_left

Let me conclude with a few words on my own experience.

I am named after my grandfather, who died before I was born. He was the chairman of the Workman’s Circle in Woodridge, NY, a Jewish fraternal association that provided assistance such as insurance, burial costs, etc. to its Yiddish speaking membership. While not revolutionary by any stretch of the imagination, it was nominally socialist. I can’t be sure of this but my grandfather was also supposedly the chairman of the local Socialist Party.

I had very little communication with my father growing up but as I was about to go up to Boston to work with the local branch of the SWP in1970, he became sufficiently alarmed to warn me about “the commies”—as it turned out he was very unhappy that I had broken with Zionism. He said that he was a communist himself a long time ago. All that amounted to was a brief membership in the American Labor Party after WWII.

I grew up in the Borscht Belt, where many Jews from my father and grandfather’s generation joined the SP or the CP. I wrote about this phenomenon in an article titled “Borscht Belt Reds” that you might want to take a look at: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/jewish/borschtbelt.htm

Last year I interviewed a woman in her nineties who was very much in the heart of Jewish radicalism in my hometown. You can watch the video here: Jewish leftist chicken farmers of the Catskills. (https://louisproyect.org/2013/01/01/jewish-leftist-chicken-farmers-of-the-catskills/).

I also put together a video on Fred Baker that might be of interest. He was a red diaper baby who had a career both as a pornographer and as a legitimate filmmaker. His “Lenny Bruce without Tears” is his most important work. Fred’s father opened up the Second Avenue Delicatessen after winding down his involvement with the CP. Fred never joined but was a lifelong radical. The video is here: https://louisproyect.org/2012/01/05/the-house-he-lived-in-conversations-with-fred-baker/.

Finally, my own experience is fairly typical of baby boomers that got involved with the left in the 1960s. By the time I was ready to join the SWP, I had pretty much stopped identifying as a Jew. I had residual Zionist leanings but they disappeared when I discovered that Israel supported the war in Vietnam. Over the years I have written a lot about Jewish culture because I think it is great, ranging from Larry David to Harvey Pekar. I would not be surprised that in 20 years or so being Jewish will mean being orthodox as more and more Jews become assimilated. Ironically, the two things that are accelerating that process is the savagery of Israel and the general acceptance of Jews into mainstream society wherever they live. Sooner or later secular-minded Israeli Jews will abandon ship and move to countries that are less oppressive, including—ironically—Germany, the nation that is regarded in some circles as the eternal foe of the Jew. In the final analysis, the Jews have more to worry about those who are supposedly their friends, like the Christian Fundamentalists whose Zionism rests on the notion that the Second Coming of Christ will rest on the universal acceptance of Jesus as redeemer.



  1. There’s also a very interesting manuscript I published, written by former Communist Party member Al Kutzik in the early 90s, titled “The Communist Party and the Jews: Implications for the National Question”, in which Kutzik — former chair of the national Jewish commission of the CPUSA and associate editor of Jewish Affairs.

    That book is out of print — I’m hoping to re-issue it shortly as an “on demand” book — but in the meantime I’d be glad to send a PDF to anyone who wants it.

    Comment by Mitchel Cohen — October 9, 2014 @ 4:33 pm

  2. Abraham Leon’s The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation is worth adding to the above.

    Comment by Rick — October 9, 2014 @ 5:58 pm

  3. Good list, Louis. You might want to add material on Clara Lemlich and Pauline Newman, too.

    Comment by Michael Hirsch — October 9, 2014 @ 6:25 pm

  4. For a guy who “pretty much stopped identifying as a Jew” decades ago you sure do talk about it a lot.

    Why are Americans so obsessed with race and ethnicity anyway? If anything is wirth a study it’s that.

    What happened to class? What’s next, “Red Headed Reds”?

    Comment by C Driver — October 10, 2014 @ 12:24 am

  5. C. Driver, I talk about Jews because I talk about everything that interests me. If you don’t like the talk here, piss off.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 10, 2014 @ 12:35 am

  6. Will do you boring old hag. This site stopped being interesting when you gave up socialism and became a full time spokesman for sections of the bourgeoisie in Syria and Ukraine.

    Comment by C Driver — October 10, 2014 @ 3:04 am

  7. I don’t understand why trolls like C. Driver (the C evidently stands for crap) don’t use a real name and email address? What kind of possible satisfaction can you get writing anonymous taunts? He reminds me of the sort of person who will write “death to fags” on the back of gas station men’s room wall.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 10, 2014 @ 3:45 am

  8. Arthur Liebman’s Jews and the Left is great, definitely worth reading.

    Comment by Inna Shtakser — October 10, 2014 @ 4:37 am

  9. The incredible over representation of Jews in the left on some level underscores the weakness of the left in the United States. It would not surprise me if the number of Jews in the old cp, the swp and the new left hovered around 50%, highlighting the under representation of the larger white population.
    Similarly, though perhaps only of marginal significance, Trotsky’s failure to achieve hegemony in the Soviet Union can be attributed to his Jewishness. It was no coincidence that Stalin ‘s acolytes referred to him as bronstein.

    Comment by David — October 10, 2014 @ 9:17 pm

  10. Hitler never tired of ranting against Jewish Bolshevism. We need more Jews (and gentiles) on the left, and the left needs a massive increase in theoretical quality as well as numbers. Of course, the increase in theoretical quality and numbers are dialectically related.

    I find that “modern Marxism” has failed to address the new realities manufactured by capitalism’s globalization. These realities include a systemic envelopment of the human mind as well as labor by capitalist institutions and values. Consequently, the human species is going down without any viable forms of struggle. This is intolerable.

    I’m a WASP (we all have our crosses to bear) and want to state that I deeply empathize with the many progressive Jews who are appalled on a daily basis by the actions of the state of Israel. Judaism deserves so much better, but Norman Pollack got it right recently in a Counterpunch article in which he stated, “Israel degrades Judaism.”

    As for Trotsky, his Jewishness probably did prevent an assumption of leadership in the post Civil War Soviet Union, but he was a deeply flawed person, himself, with an authoritarian personality that did not take the counsel of others. Victor Serge, a supporter to the end, writes of this. And so Trotsky, who nailed Stalin’s character with his observation that Stalin was a “Genghis Khan who had read Marx,” also exhibited incredible political naivete and detachment with his statement that Stalin was “Our Party’s greatest mediocrity.” This was an arrogant, fatal underestimation of Stalin.

    Comment by Joe Barnwell — October 11, 2014 @ 5:05 pm

  11. The incredible over representation of Jews in the left on some level underscores the weakness of the left in the United States.

    How can Jews be “over represented” on the left when the left itself is so badly under-represented in the U.S.? This strikes me as a very strange observation.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — October 13, 2014 @ 3:13 pm

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