A Vanished Ideology: Essays on the Jewish Communist Movement in the English-Speaking World in the Twentieth Century

By Sloin, Andrew | American Jewish History, April 2018 | Go to article overview

A Vanished Ideology: Essays on the Jewish Communist Movement in the English-Speaking World in the Twentieth Century


Sloin, Andrew, American Jewish History


A Vanished Ideology: Essays on the Jewish Communist Movement in the English-Speaking World in the Twentieth Century. By Matthew B. Hoffman and Henry F. Srebrnik, eds. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2016. 282 pp.

Insofar as the image of the Zydokomuna, or Jewish Communist, has constituted a core trope of modern antisemitism, it is hardly surprising that historians of the Jewish experience have shied away from the topic of Jewish participation in the global Communist movement. Relegated to the margins of inquiry during the era of Cold War Liberal consensus, Jewish involvement in the Communist movement--particularly within the United States--has most frequently been treated in apologetic, evasive, or condemnatory tones. In light of this, Matthew Hoffman and Henry Srebrnik's illuminating and nuanced edited volume stands as a welcome, original, and necessary contribution to the study of global Jewish political radicalism.

The nine essays comprising this volume examine the complex, fraught relationship between Jews and the Communist Party in a transnational context by focusing on the experience of Jews in the Anglophone world, including the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and South Africa. An introductory essay by Hoffman and Srebrnik sets the stage by tracing the rise of Jewish Communism as a distinct form of radicalism related to, but separate from other forms of Jewish socialism--most prominently, that of the Jewish Socialist Bund--insofar as the movement was shaped explicitly by allegiance, however critical, to the Bolshevik Revolution and Soviet regime. Throughout, the volume examines how resultant tensions between Communist universalist ambitions, the Moscow-centric policies of the Communist International (Comintern), and the ambivalent pull of Jewish ethnic and national identity structured the development of the Jewish Communist movement globally.

The strength of the volume lies in the many archivally-rich and nuanced case studies that demonstrate these tensions unfolding on the ground in various milieus. Matthew Hoffman, for example, explores how editors of the Morgn-Frayhayt and other Yiddish-language Communist publications in the United States negotiated the sharp twists of Comintern policy toward rival socialist movements, particularly as the Moscow line shifted from outright hostility to the tactics of the Popular Front in 1935. In doing so, he highlights increasingly ambivalent relations between Yiddish-speaking Communists and English-speaking, mostly non-Jewish party members for whom the Popular Front signaled the end of the need for sectarian "foreign-language" sections within the party. In the process of negotiating these tensions, he argues that American Jewish Communists, much like their Soviet counterparts, created a largely autonomous and distinctly American form of Yiddish Communist culture that frequently challenged Moscow-dictated party lines and the dictates of party leaders in the United States.

Despite focusing on the "English-speaking world," it is the threads of distinctly Yiddish politics and processes of political acculturation that tie most of the volume's essays together into a coherent whole. In one outstanding highlight, Jennifer Young contributes a nuanced analysis of the conflicted legacy of the Communist-affiliated Jewish People's Fraternal Order (JPFO), an offshoot of the International Workers Order (IWO), which emerged in the vibrant political incubator of interwar, Yiddish New York. …

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