Morris Hillquit (1869-1933) was a founder of the Socialist Party of America, a prominent labor lawyer on New York’s Lower East Side and one of the leading figures in the Jewish labor movement during its Yiddish-speaking heyday—even though he was never fluent in Yiddish.
The future Morris Hillquit was born Moishe Hillkowitz in Riga, Latvia, on August 1, 1869, the second son of German-speaking ethnic Jewish factory owners.From the time he was 13, young Moishe attended a non-Jewish secular school, the Russian-language Alexander gymnasium.In 1884, when Moishe was 15, his father, Benjamin Hillkowitz, lost his factory in Riga and decided to leave for America to improve the family’s financial situation.In 1886, Benjamin sent for the rest of the family and they emigrated to the United States, settling in New York City.The family remained poor in the new world, living in a tenement in a predominately Jewish area of the Lower East Side. In this period Moishe worked various short-term jobs in the New York city textile industry and as a picture frame maker in a factory.
Hillquit’s biographer Norma Fain Pratt remarks that Moishe was quickly drawn to the socialist movement in America:
Almost as soon as he settled in New York, Hillquit was drawn into East Side Jewish radical circles. He was then a small (5’4″), slightly built, frail adolescent with dark hair, dark oval-shaped eyes, and a gentle charming manner. He was immediately attracted to other young Jewish immigrants, mostly former students, now shop workers, who considered themselves intellectuals — a new radical intelligentsia…. For the most part their radicalism was rooted in their experiences in the European socialist and anarchist movements. But emigration and economic hardships in the United States also contributed to their further radicalization. As foreigners in America they were situated far enough outside the society to observe its failings. As frustrated but literate people, they were ambitious enough to participate in it. These young intellectuals were interested in finding alternatives to their present circumstances; their solution was to transform them.
On his 18th birthday in August 1887, the future Hillquit joined the Socialist Labor Party of America, the left-wing party founded and led by the imperious, Curacao-born Sephardic Jewish Marxist theorist Daniel De Leon. Hillquit was brought into the ranks by fellow garment worker Louis Miller, a Russian language socialist newspaper editor. Moishe became a member of Section New York’s Branch 17, a Russian-speaking unit established by Jewish émigrés from tsarist Russia not long before his joining.
Within a year or so of joining the SLP, biographer Pratt notes, Moishe Hillkowitz became one of the party’s leading crusaders against anarchism, publishing a lengthy article “Sotzializm un anarchizm” in the Arbeter zeitung (Workers’ News), a Yiddish newspaper that he helped to establish together with Abraham Cahan, Louis Miller and socialist Yiddish poet Morris Winchevsky. Hillkowitz contrasted the individualism of anarchism with the communalism of socialism in this piece. During this time the 19-year-old Hillkowitz worked as the business manager of the Arbeter zeitung, which had been established as a vehicle to speak to the city’s Yiddish-speaking immigrant working class about socialism in their own idiom. Hillkowitz, ironically, was not fluent in Yiddish, having been raised with the German and Russian languages.
In 1888, while writing for the Arbeter zeitung, he helped to found the United Hebrew Trades, a garment workers’ union. He graduated from New York University Law School in 1893. He was admitted to the New York State Bar Association in November of that same year.
According to Barbara Gelb, the author of So Short a Time (1973), Hillquit “made his legal reputation as a defense lawyer in some of the prominent labor disputes of the 1900s.” In 1901 Hillquit joined with Eugene Debs and Victor Berger to establish the Socialist Party of America. The party’s leading theoretician, he wrote History of Socialism in the United States (1903), Socialism in Theory and Practice (1909) and Socialism Summed Up(1912).
Hillquit led the departure of a dissident faction from De Leon’s Socialist Labor Party in 1899 and was a delegate to the group’s convention at Rochester, New York in 1900. He was a strong supporter of unity with the Chicago-based Social Democratic Party of Victor Berger and Eugene V. Debs. In August 1901 the two groups managed to bury their differences and come together to form the Socialist Party of America (SPA) at a convention in Indianapolis which Hillquit also attended.
Morris Hillquit remained one of the paramount political leaders of the Socialist Party for the rest of his life.
In 1904, Hillquit attended the International Socialist Congress at Amsterdam and was involved in moving the proposed Anti-Immigration Resolution, which opposed any legislation which forbade or hindered the immigration of foreign working men, some of which were forced by misery to migrate. However, following “further consideration of the fact that workingmen of backward races (Chinese, Negroes, etc.) are often imported by capitalists to keep down the native workingmen by means of cheap labour, which constitutes a willing object of exploitation, lives in an ill-concealed state of slavery” as something which should be combatted by Social Democracy “with all its energy.”
Hillquit ran for U.S. Congress in the New York 9th Congressional District in 1908, winning 21.23% of the vote in a losing effort against a Democratic incumbent.After this campaign, Hillquit turned his attention to inner-party affairs. This brought him into conflict with the SPA’s syndicalist Left Wing. His biographer notes at least four serious points of departure between Hillquit and the Industrial Workers of the World wing of the party: (1) a disbelief in the stability and efficacy of industrial unions; (2) A distaste for the strike-oriented tactics of the IWW as opposed to collective bargaining; (3) A belief in the separation of functions between the political and labor wings of the workers’ movement, as opposed to the IWW’s desire to make industrial organization primary; and (4) The radical tone of IWW propaganda, which Hillquit believed served to alienate much of society from the socialist movement and marginalize the left. His biographer declares that
His leadership fanned the fires of Party disagreement and although [Hillquit] was not alone in causing the break in 1913 with an important segment of its left wing, he certainly made a major contribution towards this unfortunate rupture.
In 1911, IWW leader William “Big Bill” Haywood was elected to the National Executive Committee of the Socialist Party, on which Hillquit also served. The syndicalist and the electoral socialist squared off in a lively public debate in New York City’s Cooper Union on Jan. 11, 1912. Haywood declared that Hillquit and the socialists ought to try “a little sabotage in the right place at the proper time” and attacked Hillquit for having abandoned the class struggle by helping the New York garment workers negotiate an industrial agreement with their employers. Hillquit replied that he had no new message rather than to reiterate a belief in a two-sided workers movement, with separate and equal political and trade union arms. “A mere change of structural forms would not revolutionize the American labor movement as claimed by our extreme industrialists,” he declared.
Hillquit’s battle against the syndicalist left of the party continued at the 1912 National Convention, held in May in Indianapolis. Hillquit’s biographer notes that
As chairman of the Committee on Constitution he more than likely authored the amendment to the Party’s Article II, Section 6, which provided for the expulsion from the Party of ‘any member of the party who opposes political action or advocates crime, sabotage, or other methods of violence as a weapon of the working class to aid in its emancipation….'” He voiced his justification for this anti-sabotage amendment by reassuring the convention that ‘if there is one thing in this country that can now check or disrupt the Socialist movement, it is not the capitalist class; it is not the Catholic Church; it is our own injudicious friends from within.
The war years
As a staunch internationalist and antimilitarist, Hillquit represented the ideological center of the Socialist Party during the years of World War I, which controlled the organization in coalition with the more pragmatist right wing exemplified by such locally-oriented leaders, politicians, and journalists as Victor Berger, Daniel Hoan, John Spargo and Charles Edward Russell. He was elected to the SP’s governing National Executive Committee on multiple occasions and was a frequent speaker at national conventions of the party. Due to his foreign birth, however, Hillquit was not constitutionally eligible to serve as president or vice president of the United States and was thus never a candidate of the party for national office.
Hillquit was a principal co-author of the resolution against U.S. entry into World War I which was passed overwhelmingly both by an emergency Socialist Party convention held just after the April 6th, 1917, U.S. declaration of war and by a subsequent membership referendum. Despite official repression, popular patriotic pressure and vigilante action against the SP’s organization, members and press, Hillquit never wavered on the issue of intervention, staunchly backing Debs, Berger, Kate Richards O’Hare and other socialists charged under the Espionage Act for opposing the war effort.
On January 26, 1916, Hillquit was part of a three person delegation to President Wilson to advocate part of the Socialist Party’s peace program, which proposed that “the President of the United States convoke a congress of neutral nations, which shall offer mediation to the belligerents and remain in permanent session until the termination of the war.” A resolution to this effect had been offered in the House of Representatives by the SP’s lone Congressman, Meyer London of New York, and Wilson received Hillquit, London, and socialist trade unionist James H. Maurer at the White House, along with various other delegations. Hillquit later recalled that Wilson was at first “inclined to give us a short and perfunctory hearing” but as the Socialists made their case to him, the session “developed into a serious and confidential conversation.” Wilson told the group that he had already considered a similar plan but chose not to put it into effect because he was not sure of its reception by other neutral nations. “The fact is,” Wilson claimed, “that the United States is the only important country that may be said to be neutral and disinterested. Practically all other neutral countries are in one way or another tied up with some belligerent power and dependent on it.”
Beginning in June 1917, Hillquit served as chief defense lawyer in a series of high profile cases on behalf of various socialist magazines and newspapers. The Wilson administration, headed in the matter by Postmaster General Albert Burleson, began to systematically ban specific issues or entire publications from the mail, or to force publications into financial peril by denying them access to low cost periodical rates. Hillquit argued cases on behalf of a number of important radical publications, including Max Eastman’s radical artistic and literary magazine, The Masses; the two socialist dailies — the New York Call and the Milwaukee Leader; the SP’s official weekly, The Masses; the two socialist dailies — the New York Call and the Milwaukee Leader; the SP’s official weekly, The American Socialist; the popular monthly Pearson’s Magazine; and the Yiddish language Jewish Daily Forward. In each of these cases, Hillquit argued that the socialist press was truly “American” and that a socialist definition of “patriotism” included the freedoms of press and speech and the right to criticize in a democratic society.Hillquit was unsuccessful in winning access to the mails for the papers he represented, but he did manage to keep the proprietors of The Masses out of prison.
In the summer of 1917, with nationalism and pro-war sentiment sweeping the nation, Hillquit ran for Mayor of New York City. Hillquit’s campaign was based on an anti-war platform and commitment to economical public services and drew the diverse support both of committed socialists, pacifists and other anti-war activists, and pro-war liberals endorsing his campaign as a protest against the government’s “sedition” policy, which effectively served to curb freedoms of speech and press.Hillquit seems to have been largely immune from attack by the Socialist Party’s left wing or other radicals during this high-profile campaign,which ended with Hillquit collecting an impressive 22% of the citywide vote. This campaign, combined with the ongoing electoral success of Congressman Meyer London (elected as a Socialist in 1914, 1916, and 1920) marked the high point for Socialist Party politics in New York City.
As a member of the SP’s National Executive Committee Hillquit worked closely with National Secretary Adolph Germer and James Oneal to defend the party from what in modern parlance might be described as an “unfriendly takeover” by its revolutionary socialist left wing. However, due to ill health Hillquit did not participate in the pivotal 1919 Emergency National Convention at Chicago which formalized the split of the left wing from the Socialist Party to form the Communist Labor Party and the Communist Party of America. Instead, Hillquit was ensconced in a sanitorium in upstate New York, recovering from another bout of tuberculosis, and was informed about the events of the convention after the fact.
The 1920s and after
In 1920 Hillquit served as the lead attorney in the unsuccessful defense of the five democratically-elected Socialist assemblymen expelled from the New York State Assembly. Hillquit’s efforts to see Assemblymen Orr, Claessens, Waldman, DeWitt, and Solomon restored to office was ultimately unsuccessful.
From 1922 through the election of 1924, Hillquit was a leading advocate of Socialist Party participation in the Conference for Progressive Political Action (CPPA).
As a celebrated leader of American Marxism and acculturated Jew, Hillquit never became closely associated with the specifically Jewish left wing, but he played a role in the Jewish trade union movement, being for a time the lawyer of the ILGWU. He also never became a Jewish nationalist of any kind; quite the contrary, he was ideologically disposed against it, but in 1926 he confessed, “Zionism makes a strong emotional appeal to me, chiefly as a manifestation of awakening national self respect of the Jewish people.” He quickly added however that Zionism, like all other national movements, must guard itself against the dangers of degeneration into jingoism — “If it ever developed in that direction, it will forfeit all claims to Socialist sympathy.”
In 1932, shortly before his death from tuberculosis, Hillquit received over one-eighth of the vote in his second campaign for Mayor. This proved to be Hillquit’s final electoral run; during his life, he had been twice a candidate for Mayor of New York City and on five times a nominee for Congress.
Death and legacy
Morris Hillquit died of tuberculosis in 1933.
Hillquit was first and foremost an orator, delivering a torrent of public talks on socialist themes to various audiences throughout his life. In his memoirs, Hillquit conservatively estimates the total number of such speeches to have been “at least 2,000.”He often appeared in public debates taking up the socialist banner. He wrote frequently for popular magazines and the party press but fairly infrequently for publication in leaflet or pamphlet form. Despite the fact that Hillquit was not a prolific pamphleteer, he did author of a number of substantial books, including a serious academic history of socialism, History of Socialism in the United States (1903, revised 1910 — translated into both Russian and German); works of popularization, such as Socialism in Theory and Practice (1909) and Socialism Summed Up (1912); a short theoretical piece, From Marx to Lenin (1921); as well as a posthumously published memoir, Loose Leaves from a Busy Life (1934).
Hillquit’s papers are housed at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin at Madison and are available on microfilm.
One of the buildings of the East River Housing Corporation, a housing cooperative started by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union in Cooperative Village on the Lower East Side, was named in Hillquit’s honor.