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…
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