In 1903, at the age of sixteen, in an obscure Lithuanian shtetl, Sidney Hillman, the son of poor, Yiddish-speaking parents, joined the Bund, the Jewish socialist movement of Russia and Poland, taking as a first assignment the smuggling of his local group’s hectograph from one hiding place to another. Some forty years later he would be a high official in the United States government during the Second World War, serving as labor’s representative on various boards where he collaborated, if not quite on equal terms, with William Knudsen, head of General Motors. Chastened by American experience, the young revolutionary had become a “labor statesman.” Yet it’s an essential part of his story that Hillman never felt entirely at ease in his new role. He saw himself as a “half intellectual” hard pressed to compete with Franklin Roosevelt’s advisers and, all the while, inescapably marked by a thick Yiddish accent.
Now, almost half a century since his death in 1946, Hillman is the subject of an enormous and enormously ambitious biography by Steven Fraser, a book that encompasses not just the story of Hillman’s public life (there is little about the private man) but also a segment of social history before and during the New Deal years. Despite some flaws, to which I shall return, this deeply researched and extremely dense work is a major achievement in American historical scholarship.
Because tsarism imposed on oppositional movements conditions of semi-legality, the Jewish Bund had to compress within itself the not-always-harmonious activities of a high-spirited socialism and a practical unionism. As if by instinct, the young Hillman aligned himself with the unionist side of the Bund, even while employing the rhetoric of socialism. This apprenticeship in dissent gained him, in Mr. Fraser’s words, “self-discipline, social solidarity, and a sense of mission one that helped supplant the age-old resignation…of the shtetl.” With the Jewish sentiments of the Bund, however, Hillman seems never to have been at ease. In 1905 he switched to the Mensheviks (or Russian Social Democrats), who advocated a somewhat bleached internationalism. Many Menshevik leaders were Jewish, but they disdained as parochial the Bundist desire to maintain Jewish social and cultural identity.
After the collapse of the Russian Revolution of 1905, Hillman, like many others in his generation of Russian radicals, fled to America. He drifted to Chicago, where jobs in the garment industry were more available than in New York. He worked for sixty to seventy hours a week at menial tasks for miserable pay. In 1909 he became an apprentice cutter in the men’s clothing factory of Hart, Schaffner & Marx, his last job as a wage earner.
Within a year there broke out one of those bitter strikes—they resembled a communal civil war—with which the early years of Jewish immigrant life were punctuated. “Hart, Schaffner & Marx had a well-deserved reputation for Prussian-style management,” and once the largely immigrant workers began to rebel, Hillman became one of their leaders. The training he had received in the Bund gave him an advantage over competitors: he could speak, clearly if not eloquently, he knew the rudiments of organization, and he showed a certain skill at holding together the diverse ethnic groups (Jewish, Italian, Slavic) among the strikers. The language of Bundist insurgency came back to him—it always would in the heat of strikes.
What Hillman had thus far experienced was not very different from what other Jewish radicals in the garment unions were experiencing. One aspect of his career, however, is seen by Mr. Fraser as distinctive, and that is his encounter with Midwestern Progressivism. Figures like the lawyer Clarence Darrow, the social worker Jane Addams, and Professor Charles Merriam of the University of Chicago, who gave a somewhat theoretical cast to Progressivist politics, came to the aid of the strikers, or tried to mediate between them and the employers, a few of whom had also been touched by Progressivism, especially by the Progressive belief that social harmony could be had through collective bargaining.
For a few years the Chicago garment workers under Hillman’s leadership were locked into a sclerotic AFL union, the United Garment Workers, but by 1914 a national network of insurgent cloakmakers bolted to form the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, and Hillman, at the age of twenty-eight, became its president. Charged by the AFL with “dual unionism for having dared to abandon the moribund” UGW, the Amalgamated drew for its leadership upon a cadre of Jewish radicals, mostly Bundists, but also a few Italian Socialists. Not until 1933 did the Amalgamated finally join the AFL—though its separation from the main labor movement allowed it to advocate a more progressive social program than any then advocated by traditional unions.
Hillman now began to understand that if a union were to be established in the garment industry, that jungle of destructive competition, it would have to assume the tasks of an industrial policeman, enforcing fair work standards and some rationalization of production (“scientific management”). About such matters he had not heard in the Bund.
In Chicago Hillman learned another important lesson: that while the rhetoric of insurgency could inspire and cement the ranks, you needed some influence within the larger society in order to settle strikes—and for this, the Progressives were very useful. Did Hillman also begin to shift in his mind to something like a Progressive outlook, abandoning his earlier socialism, or did he simply see the Progressives as a convenience to be called upon in need? Mr. Fraser does not say and he is right not to: such distinctions are seldom clear-cut, the premises most people in Hillman’s situation work from are often blurred. If, for a moment, we were to revert to the categories Hillman inherited from the Bund—he must, after all, have remembered them—we can say that he was coming to recognize that an American union, even if made up mainly of Jewish immigrants, had to combine “class struggle” with “class collaboration.” Even the most militant unions had to accept the rules and norms of the existing society, e.g., signing contracts (when the syndicalist IWW refused to sign them, it lost a good part of its membership).
The prodigy of the Bund was now on the way to becoming “the tribune of modernity, in this case, the industrial modernism of contractual obligation, economic equity, and productive efficiency.” It’s also true that he “never entirely lost touch with the world of socialist yiddishkeit, especially in his private life, but it became more the shadow than the substance of his being.” A very pale shadow, I’d add.
Friends and critics were quick to notice these changes in Hillman. That he would address “the [Chicago] Women’s Club, where he was warmly received by the city’s social elite”; that he developed warm relations with a few enlightened businessmen, like Edward Filene and Milton Florsheim—these were things that neither the stolid AFL leaders nor the Jewish Socialists of the neighboring International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) could regard with much enthusiasm. In fact, between Hillman and the Jewish Socialists around the Forward, their Yiddish newspaper, relations were seldom more than polite. They felt he was too eager to become cozy with the goyim, too ready to work with politically neuter technocrats.
I can remember from my socialist youth during the late 1930s that, while both Hillman and David Dubinsky, head of the ILGWU, were criticized for backsliding into liberal reformism, still we felt closer to Dubinsky than to Hillman. There was something “dry” and distant about Hillman; he wasn’t (we sensed) the kind of man who troubled to look back. Dubinsky, though also a fervent supporter of Roosevelt, was still “one of us,” plebeian and unpretentious. You couldn’t help liking, or being amazed by, the ebullient Dubinsky, a natural performer, while Hillman seemed stiff, authoritarian. I still think these impressions had a point—Mr. Fraser remarks in passing that Hillman, a virtuoso at containing his feelings, would suffer periodic semi-breakdowns.
Hillman was an opportunist, both quick to seize new opportunities and not always letting principles stand in their way. I suppose it was inescapable that he should come to the ideas he did about the future of American unionism: there was no avoiding the maneuvers of major party politics, there was a genuine need to find a few allies within the business world, and there was a natural inclination to join the political enterprises of Progressivism as these would meld into the New Deal. What Hillman became was a sort of Jewish-American Fabian committed to a rather bureaucratic version of reformist gradualism, or, in Mr. Fraser’s terms, a “social Keynesian” favoring state capitalist planning, or, if you prefer New Left language, a “corporate liberal.”
Hillman was also opportunistic in another sense: his repeated readiness to form an alliance with the Communists, first in the early 1920s, during the late 1930s, and lastly during the Second World War. A convert to notions of “scientific management,” he felt a certain kinship—nor was he entirely wrong—with Lenin’s espousal of Taylorism (systematized work efficiency) during the years of the Bolsheviks’ New Economic Policy in 1921, and afterward. There were more immediate reasons as well for his amiable relations with the Communists in the early 1920s, including the financial support he gave their Yiddish paper, the Freiheit. As Mr. Fraser remarks, Hillman’s “deep affinity…for the Bolsheviks” derived in part from “his own magnetic attraction to power,” and this meant power not only in the Soviet Union but also within the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. Because he dealt with the Communists, “the CP aligned itself more often in support of the union leadership than against it,” and thereby he avoided the brutal factional wars between Communists and Socialists which would soon rip apart the other garment unions.
In 1924, however, this alliance fell apart, when the Amalgamated endorsed the third-party presidential campaign of Senator Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin, and the Communists, in one of the bizarre sectarian swings ordered by the Comintern, opposed it.
A more disturbing relationship concerns that between the garment unions and the Jewish racketeers headed by the notorious Louis Lepke and Jake Gurrah. Mr. Fraser is careful here, since evidence is hard to come by, but it seems clear from his pages that these gangsters preyed upon the small and vulnerable businesses in the garment center while providing unions with “services,” ranging from handy loans to the bashing of workers’ heads. (The gangsters didn’t care whether those heads were Communist or anti-Communist; it was just a question of who paid.) During the 1920s Lepke and his goons gradually “encroached on Amalgamated territory…and in some instances ended up defending rather than assaulting strikers.” Hillman later claimed that he was unaware of this criminal infiltration into the garment center during the pre-Depression years, but “it’s a hard claim to credit,” adds Mr. Fraser, “given his keen intelligence and his almost compulsive monitoring of all union affairs. Graft and corruption among union officials were diseases endemic to the industry.”