Communism as Jewish Radical Subculture: The Los Angeles Experience, 1920-39

(This paper was delivered at the OAH Annual Meeting in Los Angeles, California on April 26, 2001 and is based on one of the chapters of my unfinished doctoral dissertation on the Communist Party and the Popular Front in Los Angeles in the 1930s).


The predisposition of first and second generation American Jews towards left wing causes-whether through unions, political organizations or the arts-- has long attracted academic attention. The actual role of rank and file Jews in the American Communist movement, however, was either ignored or downplayed by most academics-with the exception of liberal sociologist Nathan Glazer--until the late 1970s. Indeed many of the books dealing with American Jewish history that were written in the three decades after World War II, relegate the historical appeal of communism to American Jews to a matter of a few dismissive lines. In the late 1970s, however, New Left and other younger scholars such as Paul Buhle, Maurice Isserman, Paul Lyons and Arthur Liebman began to confront what-as suggested earlier-was to many American Jews still a matter of some embarrassment and certainly unworthy of serious historical attention. Paul Buhle and Paul Lyons in particular have done much to uncover the full extent of Jewish participation role in the Communist-led political, social, artistic and intellectual movements of the Depression and war years. Their work clearly demonstrates that the CPUSA owed much of its energy, drive and idealism to first and second generation Jews. But how did rank and file Jewish Communists as well as those in the Party hierarchy deal with the fact that their very activism and enthusiasm resulted in the CPUSA becoming so obviously unrepresentative of the American working class?

While Jews did not dominate the CPUSA in its heyday, their disproportionate representation-perhaps around a third in the early 1930's-was an ever-present, if rarely acknowledged, factor in the Party's Americanization campaign. As Arthur Liebman has pointed out in his study of 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; de-emphasized 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. Much of the literature on Jews and left wing movements focus on Jewish immigrants and their children in New York, Philadelphia or other older eastern cities. My research looks at the relatively new and socially unstructured society that was Los Angeles before the war and examines some of the factors unique to the Los Angeles Jewish community. The extremely high proportion of Jews in the L.A Party (CPLA) was partly a product of the unusual ethnic and racial structure of the city, with its small white working class base and significant Black, Mexicano and Asian minorities. This reality made the usual rules of labor organizing of little value to the local organization of the CPUSA, and, together with the Party's often self-destructive sectarianism, helped contribute to a number of failures during the early 1930s. In the later 1930s and 1940s however, the CPLA became perhaps the second largest Communist Party section in the country and--with it's strong base of young Jewish activists--became highly influential within many New Deal-era professional unions and the state Democratic Party itself.


The CPLA in the 1920s.


A vivid description of the close-knit Jewish community in the Boyle Heights district of East Los Angeles has been painted by former Party functionary Peggy Dennis in a her autobiography. Dennis' family, the Karasicks, was one of several large Russian-Jewish families who came to political consciousness in the years before the 1905 revolution. Forced to emigrate by political repression, anti-Semitism and poverty, they had settled in New York City. In 1912, Dennis' mother, like many other east-side slum dwellers, contracted asthma, and was advised to move to the healthier and dryer Southern California climate. Once in Los Angeles, the Karasicks soon joined forces with a handful of other left wing Jewish Socialist families from the east to form the nucleus of the early CPLA.

Like most Jews in Boyle Heights, Party members and their allies and sympathizers sought a precarious living in the city's growing needle trades industry, or worked as small shopkeepers catering to the local community. Their younger children frequently attended "kindershules" run by Party sympathizers. While in their teens the older offspring usually enrolled in Hollenbeck Junior and Roosevelt High schools, both of which were predominantly Jewish. Not surprisingly, given the Jewish cultural emphasis on learning and education, many of these youngsters enjoyed considerable academic success. When work or school were over, activities centered on the Cooperative Building, a meeting hall and cultural center with a bakery, restaurant and barber shop that was collectively run by the Party. Here the older generation could pursue their cultural and political interests emulated by their children through the Young Pioneers and the Young Workers League (YWL). From the ranks of these youth groups, notes Irving Howe, would come "not only party leaders... but a considerable number of middle-class members and fellow travelers- teachers, social workers, dentists, accountants, lawyers and doctors" who would provide the backbone of the CPLA during its popular front heyday.

Like their parents, the Pioneers and the YWL did not hesitate to make public their antipathy towards what were perceived as the bourgeois values and backward looking traditions of the larger Jewish community. Frequently singled out for disparagement was organized religion. Among the anti-religious gestures commonly made by the young Jewish Communists in the 1920's were the holding of public "Red Seders" on the important Jewish holiday of Passover and scrupulous attendance of high school on Yom Kippur and other important Jewish holidays. And while the Party did solicit support from radical Christian ministers in the Unitarian church and other Protestant denominations, its young members did not spare Christianity from their sharp wit and ridicule. Indeed, among the most popular songs of the Pioneers was "Let's Stand Up For Jesus." Singing the title three times while standing to attention, the youngsters ended the refrain by dropping to the floor with a shout of "For Christ's Sake Sit Down!"

As was the case in the adult party, the ultimate punishment for a Pioneer or YWL member who broke group discipline was a public reprimand, trial, or, in extreme cases, expulsion. Because of its self-defined role as the vanguard of the revolution and human progress, the threat of expulsion from the Communist movement was in fact an important factor in maintaining the disciplined and conformist behavior that was deemed so vital by the Party. For adult Communists, infractions of Party discipline or other more serious failures were handled by the Control Commission-- usually headed by a leading functionary. Trials of YWL members were handled similarly by a committee of the most experienced activists. In 1927 for example, seventeen year-old "Comrade Homer Bartchy," found himself tried by among others, Peggy Dennis and Bill Schneiderman for associating with a known stool pigeon, joining a union without permission and for various other breaches of discipline. Such trials, regardless of their verdicts or punishments--usually a public apology and extra duties-- reinforced at an early age, the Communist ideal of revolutionary discipline and loyalty to the party. Such ideals would remain a feature of the internal CPUSA, even during the popular front years.

Among the other precocious achievements of the Pioneers and their YWL leaders, according to Peggy Dennis, were the use of "discussion seminars... learning by doing techniques," and other methods "that were unknown at that time." At age sixteen, Pioneers ceremonially entered the YWL and came under the direct discipline of the Communist Party itself. Indeed several of the CPLA's most able activists in the 1920's, such as Lillian Dinkin, Miriam Brooks and Dennis herself, were still in their early teens at the time of their first arrests and demonstrations. Frequently, new YWL members marked their entrance into the adult Communist movement by assuming Americanized names, a practice dating back to the pre-Revolutionary Bolshevik Party. Thus Peggy Karasick, Dorothy Rosenblum and Lou Schneiderman became Carson, Ray (later Healey) and Sherman respectively. While the Party never formally demanded such changes, its campaign for the "Americanization" of the CPUSA (amounting in Los Angeles to an effort to attract non-Jews), made the assumption of new names virtually the norm. Name changes--which of course were also quite common within the larger first generation Jewish community--also reflected a certain revolutionary romanticism, and in some cases, a direct denial or rejection of Jewish identity. In later years, however, Party names also became a recognized method of avoiding blacklisting and red-baiting within trade unions or place of employment.

The overwhelming predominance of Yiddish-speaking Jews in the Los Angeles section of the California CP was one of several "shortcomings" noted in the December 1929 Draft Resolution of District 13's "plenum on the political and economic situation in California." The resolution emphasized the fact that the Party continued to be composed "largely of foreign born workers," while the social composition of the entire district, especially Los Angeles, remained "insufficiently proletarian." Both comments, of course were indirect references to and criticism of the predominance of Jews, especially shop owners and traders in the local party. The shortcomings and failures outlined by the draft resolution were dwarfed in length by the list of tasks set for the future. Among the most ambitious of these was the organization of the unemployed into Unemployed Councils (UCs) and the recruitment of the unskilled especially "colonial workers, Mexicans, Filipinos, Chinese [and] Hindus." The resolution also went on say that "remnants of the factional situation, which took on exaggerated forms in this district," continued to endanger the Party and threatened to prevent true Communists "from grasping the opportunities afforded... by the increasing revolutionary struggle." By "factional situation," of course, the CPUSA meant the conflicts within the Jewish left. While some of these shortcomings would never be resolved, the late 1930s saw major changes in the CPLA's sociological makeup and activities.


The 1930's: Second Generation Jewish Communists and the Party hierarchy

The "romance of American Communism" described by Vivian Gornick, while applicable to all ethnic groups, has special resonance for Jewish communists. Indeed no academic study of the CPUSA can hope to fully describe or explain the powerful ties of comradeship and idealism that infused the Communist movement during the depression years. The depression, Gornick points out, "was profoundly crucial to the making of many Communists...the clarifying experience, imprinting upon them in lines of fire, memories of comradeship that became the rooted source of their political passion." This view is shared by Paul Lyons' in his pioneering study of the heavily Jewish Philadelphia Communist Party--the only study that focuses direct attention on the "significance of Jewish identity" among second generation Jewish Communists. Based on oral interviews with former party members he argues that the idealism of Jewish Communists was "rooted in a subculture of identity, style, language and social network" and that most former Jewish Party members wore "their Jewishness casually but experience[d] it deeply". Most Jewish Communists of the thirties generation revelled in their Americanization and the dynamic new culture of ethnically diverse urban America. Well educated, and as Lyons found-ultimately upwardly mobile-"their radicalization was quite natural and unrelated to psychological needs or other inadequacies. For Liebman, this generation of Communists were generally "the brightest, most precocious and most dedicated students" while for Lyons they were

decidedly American youth, more accomplished than the norm,

more ambitious, perhaps even harder-working, yet very much

still added popular culture heroes to their pantheon of socialist


It was in this milieu that the CPLA--like its Philadelphia counterpart-- nurtured a number of highly talented and idealistic second generation Jewish organizers who were to play a major role in the momentous years of the middle and late 1930s. Yet during the popular front years relatively few of these young Jewish activists would be permitted to take the highest formal leadership positions in the Party. This strategy would have quite serious negative consequences for the Los Angeles Party, since Jewish activists tended to be much more rooted in Party culture and much less likely to leave for personal or other reasons. Indeed of the four (apparently) non-Jewish members chosen to be among the top two positions in the CPLA between 1934-38, three would leave in the late 1930s or 1940s and ultimately end up as friendly witnesses before either the Dies or the House Un-American Activities Committees

The rapid promotion of Ross and other educated non-Jews such as Ezra Chase and Harold Ashe in the mid-1930s, while partly a recognition of their organizational and oratorical abilities, reflected the Party's goal of projecting an American image. Indeed an uninformed or casual reader of the Western Worker during these years would find few recognizably Jewish or even eastern European names in the paper, and might be entirely unaware of the existence of among others, Section Organizer Ida Rothstein and her replacement in 1933, Elmer "Pop" Hanoff, a Russian-born ethnic Caucasian. Nor did the paper's detailed membership statistics on the background and vocation of its new members ever include any information that would suggest that the CPLA membership was over a third Jewish. But while the rapid recruitment and promotion of Ross, Chase and Ashe to top positions in the CPLA may have been partly attributable to their actual (or assumed-Ross was in fact Jewish) sociological and ethnic origin, the three men were by no means puppets of the older leadership. As a result, when all three men turned against the already heavily infiltrated CPLA in the 1940s they were able to provide a wealth of useful information to investigating committees and further damage the Party's reputation.

The reasons for the tendency of rapidly promoted American born non-Jews to become police informers or friendly witnesses during the Red Scares of 1940-41 and 1949-54, are obviously complex. There is some reason to believe, however, that they are related to a lack of commitment to the Party as an all-encompassing social and cultural movement and not just a political organization. This is suggested by comparing the backgrounds of friendly and unfriendly witnesses before anti-Communist Congressional committees. Such comparisons indicate that those American born, non-Jewish-recruits who were rapidly promoted and who did not possess non-ideological ties to the Party, were considerably more likely to testify against the CPLA than those (mostly Jewish) functionaries who had grown up in the Communist movement as children or adolescents. Indeed of thirteen former CPLA functionaries who gave friendly testimony to congressional committees in the 1940s or 1950's, eleven were non-Jews. Some of these of course had also been Red Squad plants from the beginning but again their sociological status had made for rapid promotion. During the 1930s, however, there seems to have been few if any significant complaints against promoting non-Jews. In 1934, in a rare published criticism of the CPLA's attitude towards its Jewish members, YCL activist Meyer Baylin, argued that the Los Angeles section was not immune to indirect anti-Semitism. In a Western Worker article on "The Fight Against Fascism and Anti-Semitism," that followed on the heels of two articles in the paper attacking German-Jewish capitalists for supporting fascism, Baylin wrote that the "anti-Semitic propaganda of the Silver Shirts, Los Angeles Times, and Red Squad, had "permeated some in the CPLA and…led to an attitude that the [largely Jewish] Boyle Heights section is unimportant except to unload with burdens of detail work and enrollment in the Party. It was therefore necessary to fight these tendencies, if necessary with "public trials of Party members charged with white chauvinism and anti-Semitism."

While Baylin's article did not seek to attach specific blame, the young and highly respected YCL and Party activist would soon experience at first hand the Party's bias against the promotion of Jews. This occurred late in 1934 when, to the surprise of many, he was passed over for CPLA County organizer by the relatively inexperienced American born UC leader John Leech. Of course many Jews (including those in the CPLA leadership who advocated Leech's appointment), supported and encouraged the policy of "Americanization," and few could argue that the promotion of enthusiastic young American workers was not essential for future progress. Nevertheless the frequently insensitive and mechanical manner in which the policy was implemented reflected a deep self-consciousness about Jewish identity. Several former Communists interviewed for this study considered Leech-who later became a friendly witness for the Dies Un-American activity- to be a strange choice and his erratic behavior was the subject of considerable private discussion. There is no doubt that this inexperienced house painter was promoted to this position because he was an American born non-Jew. This unstated policy of the CPUSA did not of course have any immediate effect on the deep and enduring loyalty of many Jews to the Party. Indeed no other group had greater faith in the CPUSA as a vehicle for the eradication of racial and religious barriers in society, and the struggle against American anti-Semitism. Yet, perhaps ironically, it was the very depth of this faith that permitted Jewish Communists to allow or even encourage policies that denied assimilated Jews and Yiddish culturalists alike, full equality within the movement itself. Indeed only in the late 1930's, using the previously neglected International Workers Order (IWO) as a vehicle, would the CPUSA openly accept even basic expressions of Jewish cultural and national identity.

Jewish Professionals and the CPLA

During the popular front years, 1936-39, the CPLA expanded rapidly, reaching an official membership of perhaps 2500-3000 in 1939. It also finally achieved its goal of recruiting significant numbers of non-Jewish American born members-many of them highly talented and motivated. The vast majority of these, however, were well educated members of the growing Southern California white middle- class who had found work in local branches of New Deal agencies and, especially after the election of liberal Democratic governor Culbert Olson in 1938, new state relief and welfare departments. These new recruits also included teachers, journalists, lawyers, doctors, movie studio workers and university students. Most of the CPLA's new Jewish members came from a similar background and from the late 1930s it would be reasonable to say that the CPLA had at least partially achieved its goals of becoming an organization with a reasonably broad if somewhat non-proletarian base. The new willingness of the Party to target "urban middle class elements" was of course part of a larger popular front strategy that saw any mildly progressive group or individual as a valuable addition to a future Farmer-Labor based antifascist Party or movement. Yet in Los Angeles, non-trade union and non-working class elements had long been a major part of the membership. And while the city did experience considerable industrial expansion in the mid and late 1930's, it could never expect to have the sociological composition of its counterparts in Detroit, Chicago or even San Francisco. As a result, the makeup of the CPLA remained relatively heavily Jewish throughout the popular front and War years.

By 1939 the larger California CP's membership had reached around 4-5,000.This core membership, together with a much larger group of non-Party supporters, had succeeded in becoming a highly influential force in almost every area of California's New Deal political coalition-from professional and industrial unions to political organizations and parties; from charities and welfare agencies to antifascist groups and the artistic and film community. This achievement, which is the focus of my larger research, is by any standards an extraordinary one. What the CPLA had not done, however, was make itself a completely open and legitimate organization that could withstand the upheavals of the Nazi-Soviet pact war years and Cold War. The reasons for this are complex and are beyond the scope of this paper, but there is no doubt that the heavily Jewish makeup of the CPUSA in general and the CPLA in particular was a significant factor. Even during its two heydays,1936-39 and 1941-46, the CPUSA did not seriously consider becoming a fully open organization in the sense of permitting its membership to acknowledge their affiliation to their co-workers in unions and other organizations which they entered. Although I do not believe that anti-Semitism was the single most important reason for this, it was in my view an extremely important one, for to do so, would be to play into the hands of those-like virulent anti-Semites Martin Dies and John Rankin of HUAC- who argued that a radical movement to challenge capitalism and the status quo was by definition un-American and therefore could only be the work of Jews or others who were motivated by foreign powers or inherently alien ideologies. As such no larger study of Communism or indeed anti-communism in American history can ignore or downplay the crucial role of Jews in the Party or the negative impact of anti-Semitism in the latter's contribution to one of the most important radical movements in American history.