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Abie’s Yiddish Muse

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Abraham Cahan in the late 1930s

Abraham Cahan in the late 1930s

The Rise of Abraham Cahan
By Seth Lipsky.
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Why am I telling you this? Because reading Seth Lipsky’s biography, it is all too easy to forget why anyone should care about Cahan, a serial espouser of lost causes who died more than half a century ago and whose monument, the Forward building on East Broadway—in the paper’s heyday, a hive of radical activity that housed the Workmen’s Circle and the United Hebrew Trades in addition to presses and editorial offices, and that also hosted weekly concerts and dances and a Yiddish theater troupe—is now a luxury condominium. In theory, Lipsky—who left a secure job at The Wall Street Journal in 1990 to start a weekly English-language edition of the Forward, and who went on to revive The New York Sun as a right-wing daily—ought to be an ideal match for his illustrious predecessor. At the Forward, Lipsky was known as an inspiring editor who serialized Art Spiegelman’s Maus II and nurtured writers who didn’t always share his politics. Yet as a biographer, Lipsky is small-minded, preachy, dull and inattentive, trampling over the twists and turns of Cahan’s often capricious political evolution in a rush to fit the epic contours of his unruly life into the cookie-cutter confines of wised-up American neoconservatism. Describing a 1923 speech denouncing Soviet Russia, Lipsky says: “with this speech, Cahan took his place within the leadership of an anti-Communist movement that would not be fully vindicated until 1989, nearly 40 years after Cahan’s death, when the Soviet Union finally collapsed in the face of a three-pronged strategy led by President Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Lane Kirkland.” (Lane Kirkland?!)

But then Lipsky also believes that the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which at its peak had nearly half a million members, was “the Forward’s arm in the labor movement.” And that Jay Lovestone, the American communist renegade who distributed CIA money to pliable labor leaders throughout Western Europe and Latin America, deserves much of the credit for the rise of Solidarity in Poland—a claim that might have come straight from the pages of the Workers Vanguard, circa 1982.

Identification with the subject is a biographer’s déformation professionnelle, a mostly harmless vice that sometimes frees a writer to make imaginative leaps beyond the bounds of archival evidence and strict citation. But Lipsky doesn’t really do empathy. When the young Cahan, seeking a route out of Russia, rejects Palestine as a possible destination, Lipsky writes: “Cahan was not yet ready to throw in his lot with the Zionists. He viewed himself as ‘first of all a socialist’”—thereby dismissing as a youthful error what remained, for Cahan, a lifelong commitment. Similarly, in describing Cahan’s bitter dispute with Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism—the ideological ancestor of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, and a tendency denounced by Cahan as appealing to “extremist chauvinists”—Lipsky airbrushes Jabotinsky’s fascist sympathies, the better to embrace his “stark assessment of the coming struggle” with the Arabs.

As for Cahan’s dedication to socialism, “although I myself was never a socialist or a member of a labor union, I had great sympathy for labor and its long march,” Lipsky writes. “I had moved to the right over the years, and as the Jewish story began to assert itself in the last quarter of the twentieth century, I perceived Cahan and what he built at the Forward as taking on…a new relevance.” Lipsky’s own politics are not the problem—or, at least, not the whole problem—but when his search for a usable past leads him to cut his subject down to his own size, readers have reason to complain. Especially since Lipsky seems to think that Cahan’s anticommunism is the most interesting thing about him.

* * *

Like a lot of red revolutionaries, Cahan ended up to the right of where he began. What makes any of those journeys worth writing about isn’t the terminus, though, but the choices that were faced—and the scenery along the way. As the historian Yuri Slezkine notes in The Jewish Century, “in the early twentieth century, Jews had three options—and three destinations—that represented alternative ways of being modern.” Zionists went to Palestine. Capitalists—and lumpen refugees—went to America. Socialists stayed in Russia. As a young member of the terrorist Narodnaya Volya (the People’s Will), Cahan fled to America only after many in his cell had been arrested in the crackdown that followed the assassination of Alexander II. His aim was to build “a wonderful communist life in that far-off country, a life without ‘mine’ and ‘thine.’” Visiting Russia years after his break with Lenin, Cahan sought out the Narodnik Vera Figner, who introduced the American to her Soviet comrades as “one of us.”

To say that Cahan became an anticommunist tells us nothing; the same could be said of anyone who preferred the Forward to the Freiheit (including my grandparents). Likewise any of the schnorrers, schleppers and tummlers assembled at the Garden Cafeteria (now the Wing Shoon seafood restaurant)—except, possibly, when Fidel Castro came for lunch. What matters, rather, is how and why his views changed—and what kind of anticommunist he became.

As the editor of the paper whose “Bintel Briefs” were read more avidly by many more union members than the Daily Worker, and as a power himself in the garment unions, Cahan’s own story is bound up with the saga of organized labor. Cahan, Lipsky writes, “had stood with labor throughout its great awakening and the years during which it was being organized, but he had broken early with the hard-left factions and played a leading role in the long struggle against Communism.” It’s true that Cahan played a prominent, honorable—and, for that matter, radical—role in helping to organize the needle trades in New York City. But labor’s “awakening” in the United States predated Cahan’s arrival in 1882, and despite what Lipsky appears to believe, the main battles between unions in the garment industry had little to do with ideology. David Dubinsky, who led the ILGWU—and was very close to Cahan—was an anticommunist. But so was Sidney Hillman, leader of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, who didn’t like or trust Cahan. Yet Hillman and Dubinsky joined Cahan to form the American Labor Party—whose sole congressman, East Harlem Representative Vito Marcantonio (formerly Fiorello La Guardia’s campaign manager), was a frequent ally of the Communist Party—so that New York’s workers could back the New Deal without supporting Tammany Hall.

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