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Morris Hillquit

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Morris Hillquit
Morris Hillquit
Moishe Hillkowitz

(1869-08-01)August 1, 1869
DiedOctober 8, 1933(1933-10-08) (aged 64)
Occupation(s)lawyer, political activist

Morris Hillquit (August 1, 1869 – October 8, 1933) was a founder and leader of the Socialist Party of America and prominent labor lawyer in New York City's Lower East Side. Together with Eugene V. Debs and Congressman Victor L. Berger, Hillquit was one of the leading public faces of American socialism during the first two decades of the 20th century.

In November 1917, running on an anti-war platform, Hillquit garnered more than 100,000 votes as the Socialist candidate for mayor of New York City. Hillquit again ran for mayor of New York in 1932. He also stood as a candidate for United States Congress five times over the course of his life.

Early years


Hillquit was born Moishe Hillkowitz on August 1, 1869, in Riga, Russian Empire, the second son of German-speaking ethnic Jewish factory owners.[1] From the time he was age 13, young Moishe attended a non-Jewish secular school, the Russian language Alexander Gymnasium.[2] At age 15, in 1884, Moishe's father, Benjamin Hillkowitz, lost his factory in Riga and decided to leave for America to improve the family's financial situation.[3] Together with his oldest son he set out for New York City, where he procured a two-room apartment in a tenement house.[4]

In 1886, Benjamin sent for the rest of the family and they joined him in New York.[3] The family remained poor, living in a tenement in a predominately Jewish area of the Lower East Side.[5] Then he worked on various short-term jobs in the New York city textile industry and as a picture frame maker in a factory.[5] Morris later remembered his family as "frightfully poor," with his older brother and sisters working to help support the family.[4]

Hillquit felt compelled to get a job to help alleviate the family's difficult financial situation.[4] Since his English was poor and his body frail, employment options were limited.[6] He joined other young intellectual émigrés from Tsarist Russia as a shirt-maker, repetitiously stitching cuffs of garments.[6] In his posthumously-published memoirs, Hillquit recalled that cuff-making was "the simplest part and required least skill and training," involving the simple stitching of square pieces of cut cloth.[6] The young Hillquit never progressed past that entry-level task as a shirtmaker.[6]

First political activity


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. The young intellectuals were interested in finding alternatives to their present circumstances; their solution was to transform them.[7]

Hillquit used his original surname through 1897.

On his 18th birthday in August 1887, the future Hillquit joined the Socialist Labor Party of America, brought into the ranks by a fellow garment worker and Russian language socialist newspaper editor, Louis Miller. 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.[8]

Within a year or so of joining the SLP, biographer Pratt notes, Moishe 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. Hillkowitz contrasted the individualism of anarchism with the communalism of socialism in the piece.[9] During that time the 19-year-old Hillkowitz worked as the business manager of the Arbeter zeitung, a paper that was jointly founded with Abraham Cahan, Louis Miller, and Morris Winchevsky in an effort to reach the city's Yiddish-speaking immigrant working class about socialism in their own idiom.[10] Hillkowitz, ironically, was not fluent in Yiddish, having been raised with the German and Russian languages.[11]

He helped to found the United Hebrew Trades, a garment workers' union formed in 1888, while writing for the Arbeiter Zeitung. He graduated from New York University Law School in 1893.[12] He was admitted to the New York State Bar Association in November of that same year.[12]

Early socialist movement

Along with orator Eugene Debs and Congressman Victor L. Berger, Hillquit was one of the more recognized public faces of the Socialist Party.

Hillquit led the departure of a dissident faction from Daniel De Leon's Socialist Labor Party in 1899 and was a delegate to the group's convention at Rochester, New York in 1900.[12] 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.[12]

Morris Hillquit remained one of the paramount political leaders of the Socialist Party for the rest of his life.

Hillquit was a pioneer historian of the American radical movement, publishing a broad scholarly survey in 1903 entitled History of Socialism in the United States. The book would be issued in five English-language editions during Hillquit's lifetime and would be translated into a number of the primary languages of the American socialist movement, including German, Russian, Yiddish, Finnish, and Polish.[13]

In 1904, Hillquit attended the International Socialist Congress at Amsterdam and was involved with the proposed Anti-Immigration Resolution, which opposed any legislation that forbade or hindered the immigration of foreign workingmen, some forced by misery to migrate. The resolution read:

In further consideration of the fact that WORKINGMEN OF BACKWARD RACES (CHINESE, NEGROES, ETC.) are often imported by capitalists in order to keep down the native workingmen by means of cheap labor, and that his cheap labor, which constitutes a willing object for exploitation, live in an ill-concealed state of slavery, — the Congress declares that the Social Democracy is bound to combat with all its energy the application of this means, which serves to destroy the organizations of Labor, and thereby to hamper the progress and the eventual realization of Socialism.[14]

Hillquit ran for U.S. Congress on the Socialist ticket in the New York 9th Congressional District in 1906 and 1908.[15] In the latter campaign, Hillquit garnered 21.23% of the vote in a losing effort against a Democratic incumbent.[16]

Battle with syndicalist left wing


After the campaign, Hillquit turned his attention to inner-party affairs, which 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: a disbelief in the stability and the efficacy of industrial unions, a distaste for the strike-oriented tactics of the IWW as opposed to collective bargaining, 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 the radical tone of IWW propaganda, which Hillquit believed alienated much of society from the socialist movement and marginalized the left.[17] His biographer declares:

"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."[18]

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.[19]

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 the 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.'"[20]

The issue of "syndicalism vs. socialism" was bitterly fought over the next two years, consummated by "Big Bill" Haywood's recall from the SP's NEC and the departure of a broad section of the left wing from the organization. The radical wing never forgave Hillquit for his anti-IWW orientation and made him a major whipping boy in the big split that was to come.

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 thus never was a candidate of the party for national office.

Hillquit was a principal co-author of the resolution against the US' entry into World War I, which was passed overwhelmingly both by an emergency Socialist Party convention held just after the April 6th, 1917 declaration of war and by a subsequent membership vote.[21] Despite official repression, popular patriotic pressure and vigilante action against the SP of A'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.

From left to right, Jim Maurer, Morris Hillquit, and Meyer London after their Jan. 1916 meeting with Woodrow Wilson

On January 26, 1916, Hillquit was part of a three-person delegation to Woodrow 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 had been offered in the House of Representatives by Meyer London of New York, the party's lone representative, 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."[22]

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 American Socialist; the popular monthly Pearson's Magazine; and the Yiddish language The Jewish Daily Forward. In each case, 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.[23] 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.

First mayoral campaign


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.[24] Hillquit seems to have been largely immune from attack by the Socialist Party's left wing or other radicals during the high-profile campaign,[24] which ended with Hillquit collecting an impressive 22% of the citywide vote. That 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 of America 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.

Later career

Morris Hillquit in July 1924.

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."[25]

In 1932, shortly before his death from tuberculosis, Hillquit received over one-eighth of the vote in his second campaign for Mayor of New York City. That 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 the United States Congress.



He died of tuberculosis "a few minutes past midnight on October 8th" of 1933.[26] He was age 64 at the time of his death.



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."[27] 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 a number of substantial books, including a serious academic history of socialism, History of Socialism in the United States (1903, revised 1910 — translated into Russian, German, and Yiddish); 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 in Madison, Wisconsin 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.



Books and pamphlets


Articles and leaflets



  1. ^ Norma Fain Pratt, Morris Hillquit: A Political History of an American Jewish Socialist. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979; page 3. ISBN 0-313-20526-4.
  2. ^ Pratt, Morris Hillquit, p. 4.
  3. ^ a b Pratt, Morris Hillquit, p. 5.
  4. ^ a b c Morris Hillquit, Loose Leaves from a Busy Life. New York: Macmillan, 1934; pg. 31.
  5. ^ a b Pratt, Morris Hillquit, p. 6.
  6. ^ a b c d Hillquit, Loose Leaves from a Busy Life, pg. 32.
  7. ^ Pratt, Morris Hillquit, pp. 6–7.
  8. ^ Pratt, Morris Hillquit, pp. 8–9.
  9. ^ Hillkowitz, "Sotzializm un anarchizm," Arbeter zeitung, April 8, 1890. Cited in Pratt, Morris Hillquit, p. 11.
  10. ^ Pratt, Morris Hillquit, pp. 14–15.
  11. ^ Pratt, Morris Hillquit, p. 16.
  12. ^ a b c d Lewis Randolph Hamersly (ed.), Who's Who in New York: A Biographical Dictionary of Prominent Citizens of New York City and State. Seventh Edition, 1917–1918. New York: Who's Who Publications, 1918; pg. 520.
  13. ^ For specifics of the editions, see WorldCat: German: OCLC 657001222; Russian: OCLC 11042488; Yiddish: OCLC 145440240; Finnish: 8527848; Polish: OCLC 33412186.
  14. ^ De Leon, Daniel. "Flashlights of the Amsterdam Congress". Internet Archive. New York Labor News Company. Retrieved 13 May 2017.
  15. ^ F. Gerald Ham with Carole Sue Warmbrodt (eds.), The Morris Hillquit Papers: Guide to a Microfilm Edition. Madison, WI: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1969; pg. 10.
  16. ^ Pratt, Morris Hillquit, p. 96.
  17. ^ Pratt, Morris Hillquit, pp. 99–100.
  18. ^ Pratt, Morris Hillquit, p. 99.
  19. ^ Hillquit, "What shall the Attitude of the SP Be Toward the Economic Organization of the Workers?" (Haywood Debate) in Hillquit Papers; quoted in Pratt, Morris Hillquit, p. 106.
  20. ^ Pratt, Morris Hillquit, p. 108.
  21. ^ War proclamation and program adopted at the National Convention of the Socialist Party of the United States, St. Louis, Mo., April 1917 accessed June 18, 2008. Available in print as "St. Louis Manifesto of the Socialist Party 1917" in Socialism in America from the Shakers to the Third International: a documentary history, edited by Albert Fried, New York: Doubleday Anchor edition, 1970; page 521. See also chapters IV and V of David Shannon's Socialist Party of America, especially pages 93–98.
  22. ^ Hillquit, Loose Leaves from a Busy Life, pg. 161.
  23. ^ Pratt, Morris Hillquit, p. 139.
  24. ^ a b Pratt, Morris Hillquit, p. 129.
  25. ^ Ezra Mendelsohn, On Modern Jewish Politics, p.90
  26. ^ "Millions Mourn Hillquit: World-Famous Socialist Leader Dies After Long Illness," The New Leader, vol. 16, no. 16 (Oct. 14, 1932), pg. 1. As The New Leader was the newspaper of record of the American Socialist movement in 1933, that should be regarded as precise. However, that some sources have Hillquit's date of death as "October 7, 1933."
  27. ^ Hillquit, Loose Leaves from a Busy Life, p. 80.

Further reading

  • Melech Epstein, Profiles of Eleven: Profiles of Eleven Men Who Guided the Destiny of an Immigrant Society and Stimulated Social Consciousness Among the American People. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1965.
  • Anthony V. Esposito, The Ideology of the Socialist Party of America, 1901–1917. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.
  • Richard W. Fox, "The Paradox of 'Progressive' Socialism: The Case of Morris Hillquit, 1901-1914," American Quarterly, vol. 26, no. 2 (May 1974), pp. 127–140. In JSTOR.
  • Frederick C. Giffin, "Morris Hillquit and the War Issue in the New York Mayoralty Campaign of 1917," International Social Science Review, vol. 74, no. 3-4 (1999), pp. 115–128. In JSTOR
  • Robert Hyfler, Prophets of the Left: American Socialist Thought in the Twentieth Century. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1984.
  • Irving Howe, World of Our Fathers. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.
  • Morris Iversen, Morris Hillquit: American Social Democrat: A Study of the American Left from Haymarket to the New Deal. PhD dissertation. Iowa State University, 1951.
  • Mark E. Kann, "Challenging Lockean Liberalism in America: The Case of Debs and Hillquit," Political Theory, vol. 8, no. 2 (May 1980), pp. 203–222. In JSTOR.
  • Ira Kipnis, The American Socialist Movement, 1897–1912. New York: Columbia University Press, 1952.
  • Sally M. Miller, "Americans and the Second International," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 120, no. 5 (Oct. 15, 1976), pp. 372–387, In JSTOR.
  • Norma Fain Pratt, Morris Hillquit: A Political History of an American Jewish Socialist. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979.
  • Howard Quint, The Forging of American Socialism: Origins of the Modern Movement. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1953; 2nd edition (with minor revisions) Indianapolis, Indiana: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964.
  • Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist, Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1982.
  • David A. Shannon, The Socialist Party of America: A History. New York: Macmillan, 1950.
  • Socialist Party of America, The City for the People! Municipal Platform of the Socialist Party, Mayoralty Election, 1932: For Mayor, Morris Hillquit. New York: Socialist Party, 1932.
  • Zosa Szajkowski, "The Jews and New York City's Mayoralty Election of 1917," Jewish Social Studies, vol. 32, no. 4 (Oct. 1970), pp. 286–306. In JSTOR.
  • James Weinstein, The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912–1925 New York: Monthly Review Press, 1967.
  • David Rolland Wright, The Speaking of Morris Hillquit in Opposition to World War I. PhD dissertation. Ohio University, 1971.