- Media and Culture in the U.S. Jewish Labor Movement: Sweating for Democracy in the Interwar Era by Brian Dolber
The 1920s and 1930s witnessed the consolidation of modern America as a consumer society. During these decades, the motion picture, the automobile, and consumer durables for the home such as the radio and [End Page 307] the washing machine were regularly advertised in a growing number of national journals and newspapers. What did the spread of mass consumption, mass media, and mass culture mean for democracy in America?
The transformation of America into a consumer culture in the first decades of the twentieth century was the central question addressed by Robert and Helen Lynd in Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture, their early 1920s field investigation of Muncie, Indiana. The Lynds viewed the authority achieved by consumer culture as a danger to democracy, because, as Robert Lynd warned, Americans were more important to their country as consumers than they were as citizens. Middletown was written as a secular jeremiad in which the Lynds called on Americans to repent and to renew their traditional nonpecuniary culture. Focusing on the Jewish radical groups and media institutions in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s, Brian Dolber, in Media and Culture in the U.S. Jewish Labor Movement: Sweating for Democracy in the Interwar Era, reaches conclusions far different from those of the Lynds. For Dolber, even as they adapted to the developing consumerism in America, those who identified with the Jewish left kept alive their traditions of community culture and social unionism.
As Dolber relates, in the decade following the Red Scare after the First World War, the Jewish Daily Forward (or Der Forverts), which had been founded in 1897 as the first Yiddish socialist newspaper in New York, and other socialist newspapers found themselves in dire financial straits as a result, in part, of the rise in anti-immigrant nativism in America. In 1918 Baruch Charney Vladack became the business manager of the Forward. Over the next decade, as advertising became a fundamental component of commercial culture in the United States, Vladack saw national advertising as fulfilling two functions: as a source of necessary revenue for the Forward and as a way to demonstrate to political and corporate elites that the Forward and its readership were good Americans, thus protecting them from anti-immigrant political repression. Dolber concludes that the commercialization of the Forward during the 1920s marked the integration of the Jewish labor movement’s media with the broader advertising-driven national commercial communications system. Unlike the Lynds, who equated integration with elite cultural domination, Dolber does not see the working class as becoming the passive tools of an all-powerful cultural elite. Instead, he shows how the Jewish left was able to secure a place for itself within the liberal New Deal coalition that developed in the 1930s.
Besides the Forward, the Jewish left included the Amalgamated Clothing Workers’ Union (ACWU) and the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), industrial unions founded in New York City [End Page 308] during the first two decades of the twentieth century. As Dolber notes, the ACWU and the ILGWU, working with affiliated ethnic organizations and political parties, embraced what Daniel Katz’s book All Together Different: Yiddish Socialists, Garment Workers, and the Labor Roots of Multiculturalism (2013) called “social unionism” a radical expression of labor organization that embraced political engagement and integrated union culture with larger social movements.
Social unionism was the ideal of unionism that coalesced in the establishment of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s, as union leaders and members became key constituents in the New Deal coalition that emerged during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency. Yet neither Sidney Hillman nor David Dubinsky (the leaders of, respectively, the ACWU and the ILGWU) figure prominently in Dolber’s account of this change. Also largely absent from Dolber’s analysis is John L. Lewis, who personified the aggressive, CIO-led sit-down strikes of the...