The Immigration Question in the Workers’ Movement in the US

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In confronting the existence of ethnic, racial, and linguistic differences between workers, the workers' movement has historically been guided by the principle that "workers have no country."  Any compromise on this principle represents a capitulation to bourgeois ideology.

A hundred years ago at the Stuttgart Congress of the Second International in 1907, an attempt by the opportunists to support the restriction of Chinese and Japanese immigration by bourgeois governments was overwhelmingly defeated. Opposition was so great that the opportunists were actually forced to withdraw the resolution. Instead the Congress adopted an anti-exclusionist position for the workers movement in all countries. In reporting on this Congress, Lenin wrote, "(T)here was an attempt to defend narrow, craft interests, to ban the immigration of workers from backward countries (coolies from China, etc.). This is the same spirit of aristocratism that one finds among workers in some of the "civilized" countries, who derive certain advantages from their privileged position, and are therefore inclined to forget the need for international solidarity. But no one at the Congress defended this craft and petty-bourgeois narrow-mindedness. The resolution fully meets the needs of revolutionary Social Democracy."[1] In the US, the opportunists attempted at the 1908, 1910 and 1912 Socialist Party congresses to push through resolutions to evade the decision of the Stuttgart Congress and voiced support for the American Federation of Labor's opposition to immigrants. But they were beaten back every time by comrades advocating international solidarity for all workers. One delegate admonished the opportunists that for the working class "there are no foreigners." Others insisted that the workers' movement must not join with capitalists against groups of workers. In a 1915 letter to the Socialist Propaganda League (the predecessor of the leftwing of the Socialist Party that went on to found the  Communist and Communist Labor parties in the US) Lenin wrote, "In our struggle for true internationalism and against ‘jingo-socialism' we always quote in our press the example of the opportunist leaders of the S.P. in America who are in favor of restrictions of Chinese and Japanese workers (especially after the Congress of Stuttgart, 1907 and against the decisions of Stuttgart). We think that one cannot be internationalist and at the same time in favor of such restrictions."[2]

Historically immigrants played an important role in the workers' movement in the US. The first Marxist revolutionaries came to the US after the failure of the 1848 revolution in Germany and later constituted vital links to the European center of the First International. Engels introduced certain problematic conceptions regarding immigrants into the socialist movement in the US which while accurate in certain aspects, were erroneous in others, some of which ultimately led to a negative impact on the organizational activities of American revolutionary movement. Frederich Engels was concerned about the initial slowness of the working class movement to develop in the US. He understood that certain specificities in the American situation were involved, including the lack of a feudal tradition with a strong class system, and the existence of the frontier, which served as a safety valve for the bourgeoisie, allowing discontented workers to escape from a proletarian existence to become a farmer or homesteader in the west. Another was the gulf between native and immigrant workers, in terms of economic opportunities and the inability for radicalized immigrant workers to communicate with native workers. For example, when he criticized the German socialist émigrés in America for not learning English, he wrote that, "they will have to doff every remnant of their foreign garb. They will have to become out-and-out Americans. They cannot expect the Americans to come to them; they the minority, and the immigrants, must go to the Americans, who are the vast majority and the natives. And to do that, they must above all learn English."[3] It was true that the there was a tendency for German immigrant revolutionaries to confine themselves to theoretical work in the 1880s and to disdain mass work with native, English speaking workers. It was also true that the immigrant-led revolutionary movement did indeed have to open outward to English-speaking American workers, but the emphasis on Americanization of the movement  implicit in these remarks proved to have disastrous consequences for the workers' movement, as it eventually pushed the most politically and theoretically developed and experienced workers into secondary roles, and put leadership in the hands of poorly formed militants, whose primary qualification was being an English-speaking native. After the Russian Revolution, this same policy perspective was pursued by the Communist international with even more disastrous consequences for the early CP. Moscow's insistence that native American-born militants be placed in leadership positions catapulted opportunists and careerists like William Z. Foster to leadership positions, cast Eastern European revolutionaries with left communist leanings totally outside the leadership, and accelerated the triumph of Stalinism in the US party.

Similarly, it was also problematic when Engels remarked that the "great obstacle in America, it seems to me, lies in the exceptional position of the native workers...(The native working class)  has developed and has also to a great extent organized itself on trade union lines. But it still takes up an aristocratic attitude and wherever possible leaves the ordinary badly paid occupations to the immigrants, of whom only a small section enter the aristocratic trades."[4] Though it accurately described how native and immigrant workers were divided against each other, it implied wrongly that it was the native workers and not the bourgeoisie that was responsible for the gulf between different segments of the working class. Though this comment described the segmentation in the white immigrant working class, in the 1960's the new leftists interpreted it as a basis for the "white skin privilege theory."[5]

In any case, the history of the class struggle in the US itself disproved Engel's view that Americanization of immigrant workers was a precondition for building a strong socialist movement in the US. Class solidarity and unity across ethnic and linguistic roles was a central characteristic of the workers' movement at the turn of the 20th century. The socialist parties in the US had a foreign language press that published dozens of daily and weekly newspapers in different languages.  In 1912, the Socialist Party published 5 English and 8 foreign language daily newspapers, 262 English and 36 foreign weekly newspapers, and 10 English and two foreign news monthlies in the US, and this does not include the Socialist Labor Party publications. The Socialist Party had 31 foreign language federations within it: Armenian, Bohemian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hispanic, Hungarian,  Irish, Italian, Japanese, Jewish, Latvian, Lettish, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Scandinanvian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, South Slavic, Spanish, Swedish, Ukranian, Yugoslav. These federations comprised a majority of the organization. The communist and communist labor parties founded in 1919 had immigrant majority memberships. Similarly the growth in Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) membership in the period before World War I came disproportionately from immigrants, and even the western IWW, which had a large "native" membership, had thousands of Slavs, Chicanos, and Scandinavians in their ranks.

The most famous IWW struggle, the Lawrence textile workers strike of 1912, demonstrated the capacity for solidarity between immigrant and non-immigrant workers. Lawrence was a mill town in Massachusetts where workers worked under deplorable conditions. Half the workers were teenage girls between 14-18 years of age. Skilled craft workers tended to be English speaking workers of English, Irish, and German ancestry. The unskilled workers included French-Canadian, Italian, Slavic, Hungarian, Portuguese, Syrian and Polish immigrants. A wage cut imposed at one of the mills prompted a strike by Polish women weavers, which quickly spread to 20,000 workers. A strike committee, organized under the leadership of the IWW, included two representatives from each ethnic group and demanded a 15 percent wage increase and no reprisals for strikers. Strike meetings were translated into twenty-five languages. When the authorities responded with violent repression, the strike committee dramatized the situation by sending several hundred children of the striking workers to stay with working class sympathizers in New York City. When a second trainload of 100 children were being sent to  worker sympathizers in New Jersey, the authorities attacked the children and their mothers, beating them and arresting them in front of national press coverage, which resulted in a national outpouring of solidarity.

In 1913, during the silk workers' strike in Paterson, NJ, the IWW used a similar tactic, sending strikers' children to stay with "strike mothers" in other cities, once again demonstrating class solidarity across ethnic lines.

As World War I unfolded, the role of émigrés and immigrants in the left-wing of the socialist movement was particularly important. For example, a meeting on Jan. 14, 1917 at the Brooklyn, New York home of Ludwig Lore, an immigrant from Germany, to plan a "program of action" for left forces in the American socialist movement included the participation of Trotsky, who just arrived in New York the day before; Bukharin, who was already resident as an émigré working as editor for Novy Mir, the organ of the Russian Socialist Federation; several other Russian émigrés; S.J. Rutgers, a Dutch revolutionary who was a colleague of Pannenkoek; and Sen Katayama, a Japanese émigré. According to eyewitness accounts the discussion was dominated by the Russians, with Bukharin arguing that the left should immediately split from the Socialist Party and Trotsky that the left should remain within the party for the moment but should advance its critique by publishing an independent bi-monthly organ, which was the position adopted by the meeting. Had he not returned to Russia after the February Revolution, Trotsky would likely have served as leader of the left-wing of the American movement.[6]  The co-existence of many languages was not an obstacle to the movement; to the contrary it was a reflection of its strength. At one mass rally in 1917, Trotsky addressed the crowd in Russian, and others in German, Finnish, English, Lettish, Yiddish and Lithuanian.[7]

We must stand for the defense of the international unity of the working class. We cannot   even appear to legitimize irrational fears and distrust of immigrant workers, or the bourgeoisie's attempt to use immigrants as a scapegoat for the problems that are squarely the responsibility of an economic mode of production that has outlived its usefulness. As proletarian internationalists we reject as bourgeois ideology such constructs as "cultural pollution," "linguistic pollution," "national identity,"  "distrust of foreigners," or "defense of the community or neighborhood." Our intervention cannot be that "you are right to be concerned about the threat to American culture, or national identity, or that it is terrible that you feel like a stranger in your own ‘country'," which would give credence to bourgeois ideology on the question of country, nation, culture, national identity, etc. and strengthen the bourgeois attempt to foster division within the class. On the contrary, our intervention must defend the historical acquisitions of the working class movement that workers have no country; that the defense of national culture or language or identity is not a task or concern of the proletariat, that we must reject the efforts of those who try to use these bourgeois conceptions to exacerbate the differences within the working class, to undermine working class unity. We must stress the unity of the proletariat above all else and international proletarian solidarity in the face of attempts to divide us against ourselves. Anything else constitutes an abandonment of revolutionary principle.  - Jerry Grevin, 6/24/08.


[1].- Lenin, V.I. "The International Socialist Congress in Stuttgart," Proletary No.17, Oct. 20, 1907. In Collected Works, vol. 13, p75. (We leave aside in this text controversies concerning the question of "aristocracy of labor" that Lenin implies.)

[2].- Lenin, V.I., Letter to the Secretary of the Socialist Propaganda League, Nov. 9, 1915. In Collected Works, vol. 21, p423.

[3].- Marx and Engels, Letters to Americans, p. 162-3, 290 (cited in Draper's, Roots of American Communism.)

[4].-Engels, Letter to Schluter, op cit. In Collected Works, vol.49, p392.

[5].-White skin privilege theory was an ideological concoction of the 1960s new leftists, which claimed that a supposed deal between the ruling class and the white working class granted white workers a higher standard of living at the expense of black workers who were victimized by racism and discrimination.

[6].- Draper, Theodore. The Roots of American Communism. pp. 80-83

[7].- Ibid. p.79