Freedom, Socialist Planning and National Yearning
It is no stretch to extend the blunt lances of blue light soaring out of the rubble of the World Trade Center to the Lower East Side only a few blocks away. This was the home of socialist suffering and striving at the beginning of the 20th century, and The Jewish Daily Forward (Der Forverts in the original Yiddish), edited by Abe Cahan from 1897 to 1951, has spread the light of its own “Freedom Tower” all the way uptown from its former base on East Broadway, reflecting an America of World Wars, Prosperity and Depression, and including the Holocaust. Now in reduced, weekly doses, it portrays globalization, terror, and ethnic profiling.
The newspaper started off with a relatively undiluted brew of Socialism, Unionism and Jewish Americanization. However, the very nature of a mixture like this involved both dilution and adaptation. From his very first days in New York City, while walking his journalistic beat through the Lower East Side for the muckraking Commercial Advertiser of Norman Hapgood and Lincoln Steffens, Cahan could see for himself that real, mundane America was an unprogrammed amalgamation of the People, a democratic realization, not an expression of autocracy. In Russia, on the other hand, the interests of the masses as represented by the Social Revolutionary Party had been shoved into the closet and even outlawed, so that only a Bakunin-like bomb could bring these before the Czar. In America, however, need and progress were public concerns filtered through elaborate parliamentary compromise–“Robert’s Rules of Order” loosened up and made humane by the settlement morality of Hull Houses and soup kitchens, so that social justice had to wait upon evolutionary reform. There was no open feeling that the monied man was a “natural enemy,” that class warfare had to be internecine and uncompromising. In daily life, the province of mundane reality, this man was just another citizen in the democratic ranks; “fighting for the Right” was not commonly interpreted as against him. What’s more, it was not at all spiced by the heroism of the ultimate clash, the danger of the forbidden or the charms of revolutionary self-righteousness. Unbelievably, social ideals seemed actually attainable through “congressional freedoms”, brand new for the Russian Jew even though blended with ambiguity and the illness of ease that his authentic self was being left behind.
The whole drink was heady, intoxicating Cahan with the possibility of both natural and enlightened acceptance by America. Of course, a Henry James was free to step through (and over) his Lower East Side and feel nauseated by its “uncouth” garlic and herring, but the “bona fide American” Hutchins Hapgood joyfully distilled the new aromas in The Spirit of the Ghetto (1903). Thus he felt encouraged to found the United Hebrew Trades, a roof union for the Yiddish-speaking worker of the sweatshops modeled on the prestigious German Social Democratic Labor Movement. There was no fear that capitalist Uptown, striding judgmentally, would threaten him or that the American “heartland” beyond the City, knowing only the unionization of granges and Knights of Labor, would interfere–or even care. The Jewish Lower East Side was firmly socialist–at least in spirit–and celebrated May Day with the rest of the world. Anarchists and Social Democrats (later simply “Socialists”) could hope with Morris Rosenfeld, the Yiddish “Sweatshop Bard,” that this Day would bring “light into man’s mind” (1912: 48).
But Rosenfeld’s “ode” also carried a devastating blast against the sweatshop (the incipient garment industry)–” My room is a tomb” (1912: 48) 1 in allusion to the practice of centralized clothing manufacturers of farming out their “bundles” (bondels) of cloth to “operators” (opreytehs) working out of cold-water flats and presided over by management lackeys called “cockroach contractors.” Of course, these “cottagers,” grateful to be in the “Land of Plenty,” were submissively thankful for the “right to work” and it took much socialist effort to organize resistance to the chain of exploitation dangling over their heads. Not one of the “producers” was really organized; even full-scale shops–Rosenfeld calls them “factories”–went their own merry way–aside from the Cloakmakers, penetrated by Joseph Barondess and the Anarchists; but the Anarchists were rather free-wheeling and Barondess, though charismatic, was no leader. Despite this, he was an early rival of Cahan and the latter disparaged the rivalry by saying that Anarchism stood for a completely “opposite truth” in that Social Democracy, more disciplined, patient and parliamentarian, was also less fiery and romantic–and he was proud to call himself a “realist.” Meanwhile, the unorganized–and also disorganized–sweatshop worker remained confused and almost clueless.
Moreover, many of the workers were old-fashioned, Orthodox Jews. Secular orders had no ultimate hold over them, even though they were forced to respect secular realities. They were used to poring over their “Portions of the Week” from the Bible every Sabbath, duly interpreted by a Rabbi, and to win them over. Cahan in 1890 introduced the Proletarisher magid [“Proletarian Preacher”] to the Arbeter Zeitung [“Worker’s Paper”], a weekly precursor of Der Forverts. In it he presented a Rosenfeld-style “Moses Our Rabbi” [moshe rabeynu] descending from Mt. Sinai to talk to the folk in plain Yiddish over the din of the factory. This preacher, a moralistic figure of the small Jewish towns of Russia and Poland, told the worker that though in “Exile” [“Goles”] from the “Spirit” [“Skhiyne”], he could still make a divine connection through the “Yiddish May” of socialist solidarity; he could still hoist his national–cultural and acculturated–self toward an international truth. Morris Rosenfeld’s piece-worker honestly admitted that he was not free, especially from the bonds of religion, another “natural enemy” of revolution. But a confession was not enough: he had to enact the realization that only a real May could bring both freedom and wholeness.
But Moses in Red (the title of a little book by Lincoln Steffens) still seemed too parochial, too separated from the American community. Moses, after all, had led the Israelites to Canaan, “The Promised Land,” but this now meant America. Consequently, the 1890 May Day parade, wending its way through the Lower East Side to the 14th St. frontier of Union Square, featured many speeches in English, even though many of the workers were only learning the language (perhaps at the Educational Alliance, not far from The Forward). It was as if they were being taught phrases from Debs’ addresses to Midwestern railwaymen, their new brothers: “The strike is the weapon of the oppressed,” “You are striking to avert slavery and degradation” (http://www.igc.apc.org./laborquotes/debs.html). In fact, Morris Hillquit (born Hilkowitz), an attorney for the garment industry, a Socialist candidate for Congress from the Lower East Side and a prominent labor journalist alongside Cahan, helped set up the Socialist Party which ran Debs for President in 1908. Thousands of “good Americans” and radical Jews from the Lower East Side assembled first at Hamilton Fish Park (now in District 1) and then at Rutgers Park, just across from The Forward building, to hear their candidate hold out the hope of ” a new and shining era of brotherhood” (Howe 1976: 310-311).
Also, the desire to participate in democracy cut across ideological lines. As early as 1886, when Henry George ran for the mayoralty of New York City (and almost won), Abe Cahan, along with many immigrant Jews, supported him enthusiastically and was questioned about it by a friend–“Cahan, you’re still an Anarchist! [This was his current political belonging, perhaps a reversion to Russian Revolutionary days]. So how come you’re so interested in the election returns?” The answer–George “had a heavy combed beard,” wore a “Prince Albert coat” and “spoke in beautifully composed sentences” (always a “talking point” for even a convinced radical “cosmopolite”). In spite of being rural and irrelevant–George had told urban garment workers that there was always a stream for fishing and had spoken about land too much–he was genteel and represented the broad America beyond even uptown (Cahan: 1962 325).
In other words, both George and Debs valued the Jewish contribution without really understanding it, nor for that matter did the director of an Educational Alliance summer camp, a solidly Americanized uptown “coreligionist” of German-Jewish origin, who could not deal with his campers’ need for six slices of bread with each meal. Of course, on a material level, this could be seen as a habit of geography and poverty–after all, many of them came from the “Ukraine,” the “breadbasket of Russia,” as well as being the sons of paltry “breadwinners.” However, the hunger had an emotional dimension, inimitably explained by Howe (1976)–“How could he [the German Jew] understand the underflow of anxiety in Jewish life [which] the fixation on food released, caricatured, and assuaged?” (233). Hunger could stymie the most eager Jewish participation: it could make it seem invalid, foolish and crude, rendering all attempts to be respectable and dignified ineffective–and respect and dignity were, in the last analysis, the American ambition of every Jewish Unionist. Cahan’s admiration of Henry George’s beard and coat can in fact be seen as the fatal flaw of Jewish socialism in the United States, whose ideological roots were not firm enough, motivated by uncontrolled need and residual snobbery. The Jewish worker remained, as a result, a victim rather than a “captain of his soul.” As Morris Rosenfeld put it in an epigram on “Daring,” certain staples were so necessary that one lost control over the need and was fooled despite one’s ideological armor: “Butter, salt, flour, / You must have them on your plate. / The evil grocer knows this every hour / And cheats you on the weight” (266).
So they badly needed social poise and “street smarts” in order to equal Trotsky’s clear-sighted Parisian worker in the days of the 1870 Commune. To this end, the unions and the parties of the Lower East Side had to defuse their anxiety and fill their souls as well as their bellies. Together with The Forward, they sponsored lectures on everything from French Radicalism and Liberalism (especially the French Revolution and Zola during the Dreyfus Case) through Marx and Lassalle (a hero of German Social Democracy) to Geography (including National Geographic-styles descriptions of the Pygmies of Africa). These lectures, Lower East Side versions of the Lyceums of 19th century New England, turned out to be social affairs as well, so that there was no real difference between relaxation and schooling. Both contributed to the complete and confident man that the Jewish worker felt he had to become before he could function as a useful social–and socialist–citizen. In Marxist terms, he had to reach the full humanity of “Species Self” before he could address the mundane problems of livelihood intelligently.
Thus proud Jewish, individualized militancy became the backbone of lasting revolt, and the Jewish Labor Bund, a breakaway Yiddish branch of Plekhanov’s Russian Social Democratic Party, became crucial to the Lower East Side. It was not only that the date of its independent status, 1897, coincided with founding of The Forward, as Cahan’s “Leaves of My Life” (1928) stresses. Nor was it that both Bund and Forward had the same constituents, the workers. It was that the Bund came to the defense of Jewish victims of pogroms in Eastern Europe, performing acts of heroism given headlines in The Forward (along with strike news), and that these acts were much more individualized and ethnic than its traditional socialist role as defender of the proletariat (398-407). Cahan confessed to an anti-ideological “imbalance” in this regard and finally left the Social Revolutionaries for good; after all, it was irrelevantly Anarchist and insufficiently Jewish (1962: 255)–a fact which had disillusioned the devoutly Zionist and “nationalistic” Joseph Haim Brenner. He hired Zalman Libin to write for The Arbeiter Zeitung [“The Worker’s Paper”], producing sketches like “Nahum Salzman Explains Matters to His Children” (1934: 13). This story ends with a praise of Bundist heroes like Hirsh Lekert, the Jewish shoemaker who had plotted against the Governor of Vilno, Cahan’s birthplace. Such praise was meant to put an end to ethnic shame in the hearts of Salzman’s children,.
For the Lower East Side worshiped heroic self-sacrifice, so much so that a character in Libin’s “Two Purities” called it “Sanctification of the Name” (Kiddush hashem), hallowing the Red Flag on a par with his cherished Holy Scroll. This character is described as “sunk in mourning” with an “ennobled” heart, wounded not only by the death of his son in socialist self-defense, but also by a tradition of sorrow, including the “Destruction of the Temple” (Tisha Ba’av) (1910: 145, 149). The hero and narrator of Libin’s “A Yiddish-Speaking Socialist” complains that his branch of the “Socialist Enlightenment Union” intends to hold a ball on this evening of communal lament–a “desecration” reminiscent of the “Yom Kippur Balls” held by militant atheist groups in the Lower East Side. What’s more, he emphasizes to his Chairman that “Tisha Bav is not a religious holiday; it is only a sad and bitter commemoration of an event in the life of an unlucky people.” Nevertheless, his socialist organization refuses to recognize the cultural priority of sorrow, and hearing at once the irony of “being only a Yiddish-Speaking Socialist” together with “the eternal Jewish sigh” (1910: 132, 136, 137), he escapes from Irish and German thugs into the sanctity of a Lower East Side synagogue in the throes of reading the Book of Lamentations.
Still, many radicals continued to feel that the Bund was unduly nationalistic–was nothing more than “Zionism with seasickness,” as Plekhanov jokingly had it (Howe 1976: 193). But Bundist responsiveness was ethnically and individually apposite in contrast to the dry lectures of a Bund emissary sent to New York to raise funds. This “hero,” whose speeches were indeed felt as heroic when thinking back to the dark woods of Russia, had the foolishness to discourse on the class war to the middle class members of a Minsk fraternity. The only contribution he received for the irrelevancy he inflicted was an unheroic, general embarrassment, but Cahan recouped the loss with praise of the real “martyrs” on the “home front” (1928: 418). He knew that a socialist–or at least populist–heart was hidden within every “Minsk brother,” no pseudo-Germanic Genose or “Comrade” perhaps but still family, and it was this awareness that made him, a leader of Lower East Side socialism, analyze the feelings of a successful cloak manufacturer and “money-grubber” in the English language novel, The Rise of David Levinsky (1917): “I can never forget the days of my misery. I cannot escape from my old self. My past and present do not comport well” (1966 530).
The Ethical Mundanity of Contribution
At a distance of 85 years (Feb. 15, 2002), The Forward is still trying to create “comportment.” Take its commentary on the Biblical Portion of the Week, in this case “Contribution” [Truma from Ex. 25] 2, a section following “Laws” (see Manievsky 8), which states that a “tithe” for the building of the Sanctuary is completely binding on every member of the community without distinction–on men, women and children, both the learned and the unlearned. People like Bezalel, the hands-on builder as well as architect of Solomon’s Temple, may have been elected to the task through divine fitness, but all are fit to participate in what is, after all, a communal structure and ideal. (The World Trade Center, likewise, is a function and possession of the community). What’s more, the individual is free to contribute as much as a heartfelt (and loosely religious) life style allows. The requirement to donate “gold, and silver, and brass” (Ex. 25: 3) may be given a broad construction and interpreted away numerologically and lexically as a pledge to keep the Sabbath, celebrate Atonement, and light the candles of Hanukah. In secular, “non-denominational” terms, a person is asked to rest and renew himself morally through devotion to a higher concept: the choice whether this is literally “for the sake of Heaven” (leshem shamayim) or “for the sake of a super-personal, supra-mundane ideal” (lishmo, like Socialism and communal welfare) is really up to him.
The choice is not as cruelly divisive as it sounds. According to the flexibly and broadly organic necessitarianism of Marxism, a concrete situation instantly propels the appropriate decisiveness; in the words of New Left activist Howard Zinn, “to declare what something is [means] to declare what it should be” (620-621). Consequently, an act of indignation such as the prolonged strike by the young girl employees of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in 1910 gave rise to what one East Sider called “fervor” in admiration of “our fervent girls” [unzere farbrente meydlech] (Howe 1976: 300). Farbrent, in its basic sense, means “burned through and through”–in fact, 146 girls died in the flames of the flimsily maintained Triangle Factory building. But it can also indicate “ardor,” the predisposition to revolutionary action fused with the solidarity resolving all parochial, “dialectic contradictions.”
Visions and Revisions: Revolution versus Evolution
Of course, even actively resistant unionism is no reliable force against capitalism, as Rosa Luxemberg stressed: after all, trade unions are only a part of the reigning economic and social system and must dance to the capitalist tune (see her Reform or Revolution, 1900). However, for all of her rejection of Bernstein’s “Revisionist Capitulation” in a Central Europe far from the Lower East Side, she nevertheless sees its revolutionary point in a parliamentary world, comparing “evolution” to the far from staid gushes of lava spewed out by ” the imperialist volcano,” the source of anger (1918: 33). In fact, her Crisis in the German Social Democracy (1918) came out only a year after Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky.
But in the mouth of the everyday Jew, no socialist tactician, Yiddish could make the social gaps seem alarmingly–and ridiculously–large. Irving Howe’s father, in the East Bronx of the 1930’s, imagined “fellow Jews dying of hunger three times a day” (one death seemed too little!) (1982: 3). More seriously, Nahum Salzman’s wife in a story by Libin complains that her unsuccessful and idealistic husband in an America devoted to the dollar “has blackened out our days and nights” (1934: 22)–not only made them dark or sinister but energetically opgefinstert [“shut down by darkness”]. More seriously yet, the daylight of Zimbel’s wife in another Libin story “grows black as night” when her husband attempts suicide because brand-new Communist Russia has failed to match his revolutionary dreams; she is shocked to witness his improvident and doctrinaire refusal to accept the money of “bourgeois svells” (in American slang in the original) who come to patronize his candy store (1934: 45). In other words, an unrealistic attachment to a socialist ideal can “blot out the sun,” which in New York meant democracy, and it is this feeling for freedom that caused Howe to reject both Communism and Stalinism throughout his career as a Socialist “public intellectual” whose mission was to turn mundane need into ideology.
There was, in addition, the belief that “Going to the People” also served democracy through a populism cultivated by Narodnik spokesmen like Chernichevsky and Nekrassov and was later adapted to the Jewish worker on the Lower East Side by Abe Cahan, who treasured an almanac of the Narodnaya Volya (“People’s Will”) party for capping off a praise of grass-roots Russian heroism with a photo of Karl Marx. It is as if the images of the combination of populist zeal, revolutionary “smarts,” and evolutionary calm were meant to accompany the Lower East Side activist. What’s more, Trotskyism, which was to become central to budding leaders like Irving Howe, advocated irrigating the grassroots with the idea of gradual “permanent revolution.” However, ideological hair-splitting seized center stage, to become the hallmark of what Howe calls the “hermetic box of a left-wing sect” (1982: 35). Marxist “pilpul,” Talmudic disputation radicalized and secularized, became more important than “raising consciousness” in a factory in Akron (Howe’s “prospective placement”). After all, in a time when Stalinism had nipped the revolutionary heritage in the bud by giving it a bad name, there was really no one to talk to aside from “advanced workers” and Trotskyist functionaries (Howe 1982: 50).
It may well be argued that the working class didn’t really know what it wanted, nor was it really identifiable in America. But it did know that it wanted and needed inexpensive and secure housing, green and spacious parks, and good, expert health care, a kind of cradle to the grave coverage featured by Roosevelt’s New Deal and devastating to Old Guard Socialism because it pulled its revolutionary teeth. Its “social security” represented the new “permanent revolution” which Howe now found it relevant to support (in a contemporary “Socialist Vision,” available on http://www.dsausa.org./archive/Lit./Howe.html) and which Margarita Lopez, today’s Councilwoman from District 2, the Lower East Side, has fought hard to maintain, even though her years as a student activist at the University of Puerto Rico may have schooled her in fuller socialist demands.
In other words, Jewish Socialism as practiced by Abe Cahan and others was perpetuated in unforeseen ways when the Lower East Side turned into a Puerto Rican “poverty zone” (along with Amsterdam Avenue uptown) as a result of Jewish “White Flight,” the Jewish “Allrightnik” tendency to abandon poverty-stricken memories for “gentrification and genteelness” in uptown New York City. This move was sealed in the Forties when refugees from Hitler came to settle uptown and prove that the 80’s were also a Jewish place, and in the fifties when Lopez was still in school. There she had learned that nature according to Marx meant chiefly the muscles supporting labor and wages and the ground beneath rent. However, this economic tie was expanded by André Gorz to include the psycho-social bond between ecology and socialism.
This is the meaning of Libin’s wry “A Secure Corner in America ” (1934: 251-252), in which two old men, Reb Zalman and Reb Shmuel–the seeming Rabbinical titles are in honor of their place as “senior citizens”–are given room and board by their married children plus “a little bit of pipe tobacco and an occasional coin for the synagogue collection box–what else does an old Jew need?” In fact, a great deal more: he needs not only a place to escape flying bols (“balls”) but also an empty lot (non-existent today) with a “royal” box to sit on and a tree to shade him. He needs this greenery to make up for the insult of being left in the city by his children because these are too tightfisted to pay for his stay in the country. Unfortunately, the box stores dynamite to “gentrify” the lot.
Securing the whole self, they learn, is a hazardous business. The empty lot can now be seen as another case of explosive development, as a place for “urban upgrading” and the downgrading of nature. It’s an innate Marxist conflict: the “cash nexus” stands in the way of “use value,” conceived of as the satisfaction of emotional and cultural as well as physical and economic need. Margarita Lopez found herself “squeezed” by these polar phenomena when faced with the challenge of “rehabilitating” Seward Park at the juncture of East Broadway, Canal and Essex Streets, close to The Forward building and the old Educational Alliance and now harboring drug dealers. Lopez, whose candidacy had been supported by New York City Environmentalists for her attention to “quality of life” issues, later discovered that her own funding was insufficient to perform the restoration. She was forced to make a trade and prefer “other needs in the community,” including the non-economic “barrio houses” (Spanish community centers) and public housing, more plentiful in her bailiwick than in other comparable areas (Denny Lee 14.1). Despite these mundane political preferences, her Lower East Side contains more Community Gardens than any other district, a tendency which Mele ascribes to the habit of Puerto Rican men to keep casitas or little “gardens with small wooden shacks” (210).
These gardens had Spanish names like Casa Esperanza [“Hope House”], causing one non-Latin environmentalist to feel initially estranged. Nevertheless, she was drawn to their communitarian poetry, to the very fact that they are beyond the “Anglo Heartland” and animated by Lopez’s extended and immediate Puerto Rican family (the ghosts of Jewish socialists may well be distant relatives). Of course, the area is now very mixed and ethnically eclectic, with some 50% “non-aligned Whites” and significant Asian and Black participation. Only one out of five is actually Hispanic today. Still, its chief activists remain Puerto Rican Americans, clustering around “Loisada” [“Lower East Side-a”], at once the “Spanglish” monicker of the Puerto Rican community and the name of a garden now bulldozed away by Mayor Rudy Giuliani (Davies available at http://www.henrygeorge.org./cultsex/8898.html). One of them, the late Armando Perez, a friend of Lopez, helped found the resonant “Barrio House” of the “Charas-El Bohio Cultural and Community Center” (Lewine 14). To commune with his soul, Margarita Lopez went back to a Jewish institution, the Eldridge Street Synagogue, which she has promised to resurrect as the spirit of old Lower East Side activity governing her activism.
However, Margarita Lopez is feisty, hyperactive and a bit like a commissar against “term limits,” according to a critic from The Village Voice (Chisun Lee 24-27), and as such quite unlike the gentle, obedient and correctly parliamentary Meyer London, the Socialist Congressman from the Lower East Side during United States entry into WW I. But her responsiveness to her “Old World” home is the same: just as London was swayed by events in Russia, so was Lopez moved to take a stand against American naval involvement in Puerto Rico. This is an international perspective on everyday life styles, an expansion of the local in an effort to preserve what Jonathan Schell in his “Letter from Ground Zero” in The Nation called “the rough-edged but sweet New York life” (7)–“rough-edged” because it must negotiate often violent private needs and “sweet” because these needs are always directed along the wider perspectives of what Sartre in Situations saw as the long, seemingly endless vistas of its mundanely straight avenues.
This sweetness shines through Libin’s tale of an “Elder Sister [Who] Visits a Marriage Broker.” In it Polly decides to rely on a traditional agency to eliminate the unmarried wretchedness she shares with her sister Sophie: she must both hold a job and keep house for the younger sister. However, jealousy of Sophie’s dangerously youthful appeal steps in and, to boot, the young man sent by the marriage broker is “unsold by the product.” Still, in countering capitalist “objectification,” in refusing to allow the friction to fester, she makes up with Sophie immediately with the realization that her sister is more important than “goods” in a Sears catalogue–“I’m ready to give up a hundred marriage brokers and a thousand young men for your least fingernail…I made myself a little foolish, that’s all. Don’t be mad, you hear!” (1934: 139, 154). Such understanding of emotional priorities, throwing over one’s private agenda for the good of the family, may not be simplistically Marxist but it is profoundly socialist and humane.
Moreover, it is wrong to assume that the mundane facts of family life must block socialist awareness. In Libin, “nuclear” families explode or fission into nations. The father, mother and sons of “The Wailing Wall is Fiddled Away” (1934: 232) form a conflicted coalition of Russia, Palestine-Socialist Zionism and the United States, and all of these can then merge into the greater Bundist, the international Socialism of Nahum Salzman’s “Explanations to his Children.”
In addition, the alliance of consumerism and television, a paradigmatic capitalist “Bund” of international scope, paradoxically subserves socialism by weakening national ties–after all, addiction to a particular channel or brand is not discretely ethnic. It means mundaneness raised to the facelessness of international personality. Nevertheless, consumerism also brings self-gratification–and, in a dubious way, validation of product “choice.” Television advertising, for example, offers everything from salad dressing (concocted by Paul Newman and bearing the cachet of a superstar) through electronic devices for the “home and office” (pushing the social sine qua non of a cellular phone) to exercise machines (so that one’s “abs” can win a caress from a curvaceous blonde and thus make the choice sexually glamorous). The message is that the manufacturer cares about your personal life, your home, office and even body and love life. The individual, weakened, an immigrant from Korea or West Virginia (or simply a local from New York), can say to himself–“I’m on the right track.”
Life is, as Nelly Furtado sings, a “party,” wild in possibility and tolerant of all identities. But there is an almost inexplicable dissatisfaction with capitalist “fun,” so different from the life-based, satisfying enjoyment of a Third-World meal. “It’s not that my glass is empty but I [still] need another,”3 she continues. The feeling exists–sensed only dimly since the average person is too caught in the routine of consumption to be aware of victimhood–that he is no more than a waste basket for spurious “innovations”. What is worse, he knows that none of these reach the “true autonomy” of his private dreams, as André Gorz distinguishes them from the “heteronomous public sector” (1982: 94-99). None of them answer to his yearning for “use value” and he feels trivialized by “the cool decay” (as Nelly Furtado puts it).
Still, “overripeness is all,” to restate both Shakespeare and Trotsky, who believed that a capitalist republic must “max itself out” (politically and economically) before acceding to socialism. But the timetable is now very vague: the title of Gorz’s Misères du present; richesses du possible (1997) hints at but does not specify the date of a socialist victory. The reason for the indeterminacy is that the notion of labor, for Marx a dignified physical energy entitled to a just reward, has been demoted to undetermined, vaguely “skilled” effort involving automated brainpower. In addition, the frequency (and attendant reality) of the expression “shit work” indicates that employment now is anything but a realization of personal autonomy; it is only there as a check to pay the rent. Accordingly, the grousing employee feels “impotent” opposite the check cutter in his personnel department and is hardly in the mood to stand shoulder to shoulder with others in the same alienated situation (Gorz 1982: 39). In spite of this flaccidity, Gorz proposes an alliance between Greens and Socialists in a demand for “eco-social rationality” which would solve the problem of Libin’s old men (1994: 12). Likewise, though vaguely, he posits the development of a resistant class standing for the rights of the workers as citizens, even though their labor is anemic and absurd.
The aim is to recover “use” and re-instate the ethic of contribution into the “daily grind,” thereby animating and elevating mundane reality. The modern given of human suffering due to hope-bereft capitalist surfeit, experienced as the suffocating otherness of day-to-day “marketing” cutting off the breathing space of personal autonomy, must be clarified and healed. To this end, Lower East Side Jewish Socialism, as furthered by Puerto Rican evolutionary activism in a new social world, proposes a cure in which the sacrifice of revolutionary purity triggers health. The goal, after all, is not being right but strangling the Strangler from Wall Street next door, using one’s own hands, not the tentacles of a political party. Nelly Furtado spells out the sequence in “Gonna Finda Way”–“Evolve your destiny, child, and you’ll never walk alone.” In other words, the unaided individual “can do it” by listening carefully to the voice of socialist self-realization as it merges with Desis or Urdu “Personhood” in Brooklyn. A person may even collect toy elephants, not as capitalist “fetishes” but as the trunks of mundane reality raised by Ganesha, the Hindu Elephant God whose trumpet is now the symbol of luck and social wisdom for Lower Manhattan Man.
1. All translations from the Yiddish, unless otherwise indicated, are by the author of this article.
2. My edition of the Bible is bilingual Holy Scriptures (Jerusalem: Koren, 1988).
3. Nelly Furtado’s songs are on CD: Whoa Nelly (Dreamworks, 2000).
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Author: Aside from slinging Hebrew in the cafeteria of the Defense Language Institute for military students (Presidio of Monterey, CA), Al Waldinger is busy nursing along the lost cause of Jewish socialism and trying to define Jewish translation.