Morris Hillquit

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Morris Hillquit

Morris Hillquit (1869-1933), Russian-born American lawyer and author, figured prominently in the organization of the Socialist Party of America.

Morris Hillquit, born Moses Hilkowitz in Riga on Aug. 1, 1869, received his early education abroad. Soon after emigrating to New York City in 1886, he began a lifelong involvement in left-wing political activities, participating in the establishment of the United Hebrew Trades, a union for impoverished Jewish garment workers formed in 1888. About the same time, he worked as a clerk for the Socialist Labor party and soon began writing for the Arbeiter Zeitung, a Yiddish-language newspaper. In 1891 he entered New York University Law School, receiving a degree in 1893. From 1893 to 1899 he mainly devoted himself to building a successful legal practice.

In 1899 Hillquit emerged as an important Socialist leader. He and others had become restive under Daniel De Leon's heavy-handed leadership of the Socialist Labor party, and the dissidents—known as the "Kangaroo" faction—bolted the party. In 1900 Hillquit and his allies supported the presidential candidate of the Social Democratic party, Eugene V. Debs. The next year, with Hillquit as a central figure in the unity move, the Kangaroo faction and the Debs party joined to form the Socialist Party of America.

Hillquit served the party as promoter, platform writer, legal adviser, author, and candidate. He wrote numerous articles and books on the party's behalf. On five occasions—in 1906, 1908, 1916, 1918, and 1920—he ran for Congress in East Side New York districts. Twice he ran for mayor of New York City. An evolutionary socialist, he argued that the party would discredit itself if it promised an instant socialist utopia. He nevertheless repeatedly supported the leadership of Debs, though he was closer to the party's radical wing.

Hillquit was conspicuously hostile to American involvement in World War I. In 1915 the Socialist party adopted a platform (largely written by Hillquit) urging Americans to withhold economic and diplomatic support from all the belligerents. When the United States entered the war in 1917, another Hillquit platform condemning the war was approved by the party. When, in 1917, Hillquit ran for mayor, it was in the face of great hostility to the Socialists' peace platform; still, he received more than 20 percent of the vote.

After World War I Hillquit's poor health and the demoralized condition of the Socialist party limited his political effectiveness, although in 1932 he again entered the New York City mayoralty race and won nearly a quarter-million votes. He died on Dec. 31, 1933.

Further Reading

Hillquit's many writings include an autobiography, Loose Leaves from a Busy Life (1934). Three excellent studies of socialism in America provide background for Hillquit's career: Ira Kipnis, The American Socialist Movement, 1897-1912 (1952); Howard H. Quint, The Forging of American Socialism (1953); and David A. Shannon, The Socialist Party of America (1955).

Additional Sources

Pratt, Norma Fain., Morris Hillquit: a political history of an American Jewish socialist, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979. □

Hillquit, Morris

views updated May 17 2018


HILLQUIT, MORRIS (1869–1933), U.S. socialist. Hillquit was born in Riga, Latvia. He settled in New York City in 1886 and was soon involved in the vigorous radical intellectual life of the Lower East Side. In 1888 he helped organize the United Hebrew Trades as a first step in the unionization of immigrant Jewish workers. Entering the Socialist Labor Party, Hillquit led the revolt in the late 1890s against the party's control by Daniel *De Leon. Hillquit opposed De Leon's hostility to the American Federation of Labor, and he fought the attempt to destroy established trade unions through the creation of rival socialist unions. Hillquit insisted that socialists could convince unionized workers that radical change was feasible and desirable, and accordingly he envisioned socialist control of existing trade unions.

In 1900 the Socialist Party of America was formed from an amalgamation of several groups, and Hillquit played a leading role in its affairs until his death. He was an able spokesman for the moderate elements that were in control, and also had a decisive influence in developing the program and ideology of the party. Hillquit's concept of socialism falls within the Marxian Revisionism so popular in the early 20th century. He stressed the compatibility of Marxism with social reform and an ascending standard of living for the worker. A socialist state would result from the conversion of the people, not through violent or direct means, and political action was thus the very essence of the socialist's method. It educated men about socialism, and through electoral victories socialists gained office where they might improve conditions for the workingman, thus accelerating the acceptance of radical social change.

Although often characterized as a compromiser, Hillquit helped write the defiant position of the Socialist Party against American entrance into World War i, and he ran for mayor of New York City in 1917 on a peace platform. He was also unyielding in his opposition to left-wing attempts to take control of the Socialist Party; and though he defended due process in many court battles involving radicals and trade unionists, he was prepared to discard due process when necessary in the continuing strife among factions of the Socialist Party. During the Socialist Party's rapid growth in 1908–12, as in the desperate days of the early 1930s, Hillquit constantly predicted the ultimate victory of socialism in the United States. But clearly success and political power were not immediate possibilities, and they cannot account for Hillquit's lifelong commitment to socialism. As he put it near the end of his life: "To me the socialist movement with its enthusiasm and idealism, its comradeship and struggles, its hopes and disappointments, its victories and defeats, has been the best that life has had to offer." Among his writings are Socialism in Theory and Practice (1909), and Loose Leaves from a Busy Life (1934).


I. Kipnis, American Socialist Movement, 18971912 (1952), index; H. Quint, Forging of American Socialism (1964), 335–87; D. Egbert and S. Persons (eds.), Socialism and American Life, 2 vols. (1952), index; Z. Szajkowski, in: JSS, 32 no. 4 (1970), 286–306.

[Irwin Yellowitz]

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