Whatever else he was, Abraham Cahan was a lifelong socialist. As a critic, he helped to shape the literary and theatrical tastes of the Yiddish-speaking immigrants. As a novelist, he interpreted the immigrant community to the English-speaking public. But it was his role as editor in chief of the largest socialist daily in the United States, from a time when the movement seemed to have a bright future, that made him a force to be reckoned with in the Jewish community, New York City and beyond. As editor, Cahan put his newspaper at the service of social justice for the poor, the working people and the immigrants. Even when youthful utopianism gave way to middle-aged pragmatism, he recognized that unfettered capitalism failed to provide for a fair distribution of power and wealth.
Cahan was present at the founding of the Jewish Socialist movement in the United States. In 1882, as a 22-year-old immigrant, he presented the first-ever socialist speech spoken in Yiddish in America to packed hall behind a German beer saloon. Cahan’s speech was the result of a challenge: He had attended a meeting directed at Jewish workers in which several radical intellectuals harangued their Yiddish-speaking audience in Russian. When Cahan asked the organizers why they didn’t use Yiddish to reach the Jewish masses, they scoffed: “What Jew doesn’t know Russian?” “My father,” Cahan answered. Doubting that Yiddish could be used to explain weighty radical ideas, they laughingly dared him to go ahead and try. A month later, he spoke for two hours in clear, simple language on Marx’s theory of surplus value, the class struggle and the coming of socialism. Thus began Cahan’s long career as a socialist propagandist.
In 1897, Cahan joined a group of members of the Socialist Labor Party who hoped to break out of the sectarian dead-end that the party had wandered into. The group founded a new Yiddish newspaper, the Forverts, named for the organ of the greatly admired Social Democratic Party of Germany. Cahan was the first editor, but he left after a few months. He returned in 1902 and, after a brief hiatus, soon turned the Forverts into the most widely read socialist daily in the country and Yiddish daily in the world. Critics charged Cahan with sensationalist pandering to popular taste. But Cahan’s sensationalism attracted a wider audience for the newspaper’s socialist message. The Forverts was the backbone of the Socialist Party in New York. (The SP was founded in 1901 and led nationally by Eugene Victor Debs. Later, the Forverts’s radio station, WEVD, bore Debs’s initials.) When socialist labor lawyer Meyer London was elected to Congress in 1914, he appeared before delirious supporters from a balcony on the Jewish Daily Forward Building. The Forverts was profitable back then, and it used its wealth, as well as its columns, to support labor struggles among Jews and non-Jews alike.
In the 1920s, world events forced Cahan to reconsider some of his beliefs. Although he had no patience for early American communists, Cahan for a time admired the communist experiment in Russia. He even closed the pages of his newspaper to Menshevik and Bundist opponents of the Bolshevik regime. But soon, Cahan, too, became such an opponent. He threw in his lot in with those European Socialist Party leaders who saw formal democracy and civil liberties as inseparable parts of the socialist mission and who began to doubt that a clean break with capitalism was possible, or even desirable. (Cahan was well acquainted with the socialist scene in Europe, attending meetings of the Socialist International organization and corresponding with such leading socialist thinkers and politicians as Eduard Bernstein, Karl Kautsky and Jean Longuet.) A visit to the Soviet Union in 1927 confirmed Cahan’s doubts. Aside from the regime’s political repression, Cahan argued that the communists had misunderstood the aim of socialism. Instead of abolishing poverty, he complained, they had abolished wealth.
A visit to Palestine in 1925 helped change Cahan’s attitude toward Zionism. Cahan had always been a cosmopolitan opponent of any form of nationalism, including any form of Jewish nationalism. But after touring the kibbutzim and other collective enterprises in Palestine, he came to admire Labor Zionist efforts to build the new social order along with a Jewish homeland. Although he never embraced Zionism on a theoretical level, from then on he became a practical supporter of the Labor Zionist enterprise.
The onset of the Great Depression seemed to confirm socialist expectations that capitalism would collapse of its own weight. But beginning in 1933, Cahan saw glimmers of hope in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program. Once, at a union rally at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, Cahan waved a Socialist Party membership book in the air and invited Roosevelt to sign it. The Forverts expressed special admiration for the National Labor Relations Act, which made it easier for workers to organize unions, and the Social Security Act, which enacted unemployment insurance, old-age pensions and aid to families with dependent children. By 1936, Cahan and the Forverts were enthusiastic backers of the president. Leaving the Socialist Party, they helped found the American Labor Party (and later the Liberal Party) to maintain their independence while throwing their support to progressive politicians of either major party.
By the late 1930s, Cahan had edged toward the American political mainstream — though he believed that the mainstream had moved toward him. Still, he never gave up his socialist soul. At his death, in 1951, the masthead of his newspaper still bore the slogans “Workers of All Countries, Unite!” and “The Liberation of the Workers Depends on the Workers Themselves.”
Daniel Soyer is professor of history at Fordham University and editor, with Jocelyn Cohen, of “My Future Is in America: Autobiographies of Eastern European Jewish Immigrants (NYU Press, 2006). He is a member of the Forward Association.