Immigration’s Troubled History

Against the Current, No. 190, September/October 2017

Emily Pope-Obeda

Immigration and the Decline of Internationalism in the American Working Class, 1864-1919
By Charles R. Leinenweber
Center for Socialist History, CreateSpace Publishing, 2016, 274 pages, $15 paperback.

THE ASCENDANCY OF Donald Trump has highlighted a number of deep fissures within the labor movement, providing a sharp view of the ideological distance between various segments of the American working class. One of the clearest sources of this division has been the idea of internationalism. Labor’s most conservative, protectionist elements have applauded the nativism and chauvinism of the new administration’s “America First” attitude; its mainstream has presented a willingness to capitulate and stay silent in the face of increasingly xenophobic rhetoric; and its left has sought to create a counternarrative of inclusion and solidarity with immigrant communities.

These divergences have have accelerated sharply in recent years, but are not without deep roots in the American labor movement. At a moment when the globalization of the labor market is so frequently dehistoricized, Charles Leinenweber’s pertinent 1968 analysis provides an important exploration of the early American left and its efforts to make sense of a rapidly shifting international labor landscape.

Through a close examination of the internal debates over immigration within various American labor and socialist movements, Leinenweber illustrates the initial hopes embodied by the First International to “generate a spirit of solidarity that would transcend national and ethnic boundaries,” and their ultimate failure, through the support of restrictionist policies.

In this remarkably timely examination of the relationships between migration, internationalism and class formation, Leinenweber makes the grim and all too familiar observation that many within the nascent American working-class movement became “caricatures of Americans,” and “literally adopted the slogan, ‘America for Americans,’” when they themselves were immigrants.

Immigration and the Decline of Interna­tionalism in the American Working Class, 1864-1919 is assembled from Leinenweber’s 1968 University of California doctoral dissertation along with an appendix of three additional published articles he wrote in subsequent years exploring the American socialist movement. Nearly 50 years after its initial writing, many of Leinenweber’s observations remain chillingly pertinent.

The author sets out to explore the perspectives of the “activists in the American working-class movement,” an admittedly broad unit that he devotes much of his analysis to subdividing and categorizing, and how they developed class-based perceptions on immigration, “containing both rational and irrational elements.”

Immigration As Political Marker

Starting with a discussion of the First International and the debates among British trade unionists, Marxists and continental leaders over the nature and purpose of internationalism, Leinenweber stresses that the immigration question “played a vital role in revealing and accentuating fundamental differences between the revolutionaries and trade unionists.”

The earliest iterations of trade union internationalism, Leinenweber explains, were predominantly led by efforts to stop the importation of strikebreakers, which some labor leaders within the First International saw more narrowly as an issue of protectionism, while the Marxists within the organization saw it as an opportunity to create bridges between working-class people across national boundaries.

In some instances, determined largely by type of work, skill requirements and levels of mechanization, the First International had limited success in communicating and coordinating across national lines to deter strikebreaking. However, as the organization quickly declined by the early 1870s, due in no small measure, Leinenweber argues, to the fact that it had “stopped short of the factory gates,” it failed to approach immigration control with anything more than a defensive posture.

The book traces anti-immigrant sentiment from a narrower set of anxieties about contract labor and the threat to free labor ideology in the United States, to a prejudicial attitude against all Chinese laborers, to a more generally restrictionist bent and growing hostility against “new” immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century.

Though perhaps overstating the initial level of internationalist spirit among much of the American working class in order to trace a more dramatic decline and dissolution of this sentiment, Leinenweber provides an important counterpoint to the tendency to collapse the historical trajectory of working-class nativism into an eternal feature of the movement.

While still addressing many of the perennial questions of why the United States never reached a level of socialist organization comparable to that of other nations, Leinenweber shifts the conversation to question why the working-class and socialist movements that did exist in the United States came to so firmly reject internationalism, champion immigration restriction, and embody the nativism of their times.

Over time, the author asserts, in spite of the heavily immigrant nature of the American labor force, “Americanization and internationalism became contradictory as pre-industrial unionism faded and the AFL’s new craft unionism came into prominence. At that time, the mainstream of the working-class movement began to drift rapidly toward a restrictionist position.”

In response, the left wing within the labor movement was forced to either accept an anti-internationalist perspective in order to attract native-born workers, or to lose their support. “Americanization, originally formulated in the offices of the International, had become a dilemma for internationalists.”

Leinenweber identifies the origins of early working-class opposition to immigration as far back as the National Labor Union of the late 1860s and early 1870s, and argues that while there were some within the organization who advocated for a broader view of internationalism in the face of global capitalism, the majority of the movement was conservative and individualistic in its approach.

At this early moment, however, there was a critical argument within the organization that immigration itself was a reflection of the disparities between nations, and that Chinese immigration in particular, was “a natural process of redressing the imbalance between these nations.”

Nationalism Consolidated

Over time, however, a variety of factors, including the First International’s tendency to emphasize trade union autonomy over internationalism, the shift toward craft unionism, the development of an aristocracy of labor, and the pressures of Americanization, all led to a sharp decline of working-class internationalist sentiment.

By the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century, Leinenweber asserts, a variety of working-class movements had increasingly consolidated a nationalistic, restrictionist approach to the question of immigration.

This was driven in large part by the explosive growth of the American Federation of Labor, from fewer than 500,000 members in 1897 to over two million by 1904, as well as by the cooperation or complacency of much of the right wing of the socialist movement in the country to acquiesce to the AFL’s restrictionist tendencies.

It was at this moment, Leinenweber notes, that “nativism had become common ideological currency in American society as a whole,” and increasingly, much of the left, led by the AFL, “adapted it to its own purposes.”

Throughout the first decades of the 20th century, the unions that did take a strong stance against nativism, such as the needle trades unions, the Brewery Workers, and the Western Federation of Miners, tended to be both heavily immigrant and socialist. As Leinenweber explains, “they alone carried the banner of working-class internationalism” but their demographics, as well as their ideological perspective, separated them from the mainstream of the American labor movement and limited their influence.

The Socialist Party itself was “irreconcilably divided” on this question, in large measure because of their desire to attract non-immigrant workers through a program of “Americanization.”

Only the industrial socialists and the IWW emerged as an ideological force against restrictionism, standing up for unification of the working class along lines of nationality, as well as craft.

They argued, Leinenweber explains, that “if the immigrant workers couldn’t be a part of American society, they could be a part of something much greater: the international working class.” However, divisions within the left soon diminished the influence of these perspectives, and immigrant socialists continued to feel excluded and disenfranchised within the Socialist Party.

The decline of internationalism, Leinen­weber asserts, found its ultimate expression in the 1919 purges within the Socialist Party, and by the time that mass immigration restriction took hold in the 1920s, it had the “enthusiastic support” of the most powerful working-class organizations of the era.

In his later chapters, Leinenweber turns to the development of the socialist movement in the United States, and explores the differing perspectives on immigration among various Socialist Party officials, municipal socialists, and industrial socialists. He argues that, as a result, the American left was distinctive from its European counterparts, not only because of its diverse multi-ethnic workforce, but also due to its segmentation and the conservative bent of the mainstream labor movement during the growth and consolidation of the AFL.

Part of the reason the socialist movement in the United States struggled to retain its internationalist spirit, Leinenweber explains, is because it was so eager to overcome its association as an immigrant-only movement and to attract native-born workers to the movement. In doing so, the Socialist Party, among others, adopted a clear policy of Americanization, which over time blurred into an anti-immigrant platform.

He juxtaposes this shift with that occurring within the more conservative trade union movement, explaining that “While the AFL relied on the moderate anti-capitalist language of American trade unionism to favor restrictions, the Socialist Party used the language of European class struggle for the same purpose.” “The difference,” Leinenweber concludes, “was merely one of symbols, not substance.”

Disjointed Narratives and Race

Structurally, the book’s lack of cohesion weakens the clarity of its analytical contributions in places. The division between Part I, which centers on the “Mainstream of the Working Class Movement and Immigration” and Part II, on “Labor Radicals, Americanization and Immigration,” creates what at times reads as two distinct and insufficiently intertwined narratives.

This disunity is only sharpened by the division between the body of the text and the appendix, as much of the most vibrant exploration of the development of immigrant labor movement participation and socialist culture from below are relegated to the articles in the appendices, rather than in ongoing conversation with the more structural analysis of the main text.

Part I in particular is markedly disjointed. It begins with an analysis of the First International in Europe and ends with an evaluation of craft unionism and the AFL’s opposition to immigration, but never successfully creates an analytical bridge between these distinct historical moments. The work is at its strongest in Part II, where Leinenweber more deftly follows anti-immigrant impulses and Americanization pressures through a variety of organizational bodies over time, but also provides more thorough context for these shifts and debates.

Throughout, where Leinenweber homes in on a particular union or socialist organization and discusses its composition, its ideological bent and political maneuverings, his coverage is thorough, insightful and specific. It is in uniting these various observations and in connecting the parallel, and at times overlapping, trajectories of Part I and Part II, that the account struggles with clarity.

While he explains the conditions under which concerns about mass immigration grew, Leinenweber provides little context for understanding the racial politics of the period. The particular forms of racialized nativism that developed within the movement are never disentangled from broader observations about restrictionism. In one such instance, Leinenweber spends several pages outlining the development of prejudiced anti-immigrant sentiments within the AFL over the course of many years, only to then make the abrupt statement that “the first glimmering of nativism” came in an American Federationist article from 1897.

More notably, the book largely neglects any real analysis of race, and even where race is discussed as a factor of nativism, particularly in the case of anti-Chinese sentiment, it is insufficiently addressed. While clearly a reflection of the time when this manuscript was produced, the absence nevertheless weakens Leinenweber’s ability to shed light on the dynamics of the American labor and left movements in the period.

Starting directly at the end of the Civil War, Leinenweber offers no analysis of how the massive shift in the free labor population of the nation impacted the debates of the nascent labor and left organizations of the time, aside from a few brief mentions about which trade union leaders were generally tolerant to African-American members, and which were not.

Racial segregation is only briefly touched on and treated as a tangential, rather than critically intertwined aspect of how these organizations came to develop their racial policies and exclusionary tactics during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Having made the important conclusion that “at the same time as the AFL began to accommodate itself to U.S. expansion, it also began to recognize racial segregation as a durable and tolerable institution,” Leinenweber doesn’t connect the strains of anti-immigrant hostility to those of anti-Black racism in his analysis of how the working-class movement came to define itself.Beyond the discussion, or lack thereof, of African Americans within the labor and left movements of the period, Leinenweber’s treatment of anti-immigrant sentiments often evokes the question of race, but leaves unsatisfyingly elusive answers. He generally provides little in the way of explanation of the racial politics that drove concerns about immigration to develop into xenophobia.

Anti-Chinese sentiment is taken largely as a foregone conclusion, and its roots within American racial thought of the period, rather than merely within  labor considerations, is generally absent. Likewise, the turn toward hostility against ‘new’ immigrant populations from Eastern and Southern Europe is generally discussed in terms of the practices of particular unions and parties vis-a-vis organizing these workers, but without a deeper analysis of racial formation and European ethnic groups deemed to be, initially, less than fully “white” within the racial hierarchy of the United States.

Beyond the absence of clear racial analysis, there is also at times a confusing blurring of the connotations of internationalism used throughout the work. In some ways, Leinenweber is addressing something much narrower than internationalism itself — he is primarily concerned with the question of anti-immigrant and restrictionist sentiment among the American labor movement and the socialist movement of the period.

Internationalism is largely engaged in order to make reference to the First International, with which the first two chapters are concerned. However, this broader strain of international cooperation and connection among movements drops away quickly within the first quarter of the book, and the rest centers on domestic organizations (though often innately international by their immigrant compositions) and their struggles with questions of immigration policy and nativist sentiment.

While internationalism appears again in the final article from the Appendix, on socialist opposition to World War I, a more thorough exploration of other facets of internationalism, through including questions of empire and American expansion, would have strengthened the book’s claims.

In spite of these shortcomings, Leinen­weber offers us a critical examination of the deep origins of the segmented and contentious responses to immigration among U.S. labor and left movements.

The book’s publication at this moment, is particularly fortuitous and fulfills the mission of its publisher, the Center for Socialist History, which states that “we simply think that people who know the socialist past will be better able to solve the problems of the present.” It offers an unsettling look at the long legacy and dangers of anti-immigrant sentiment and the impulses of Americanization on the left’s ability to thrive in America.

Leinenweber provides a thoughtful, if at times dated and fragmented, exploration of how trade unionists and socialists in the United States have both chased and ultimately lost that “elusive spirit” of international solidarity. As much of the contemporary labor movement continues to fall prey to dual impulses of nativism and protectionism, that spirit has rarely been more important to the survival and strength of the movement.

September-October 2017, ATC 190