Before the party was repressed for its opposition to World War I and suffered splits over the question of Communist Russia, it was probably the most successful and largest radical party of the socialist Left in America, at least down to the 1920s.
The Socialist Party of America was made up of Marxists, anarchists, some members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union, democratic socialists and Social Democrats of that day. Eugene V. Debs was on two occasions its candidate for US president in the elections of 1912 and 1920, and even won about 6% of the votes in 1912.
From 15–21 May, 1910, the Socialist Party of America held a national convention in Chicago (Ross 2015: 119). During that convention the party discussed the controversial issue of immigration restriction and the question whether mass immigration was good for American workers, as analysed by a committee established in 1908 consisting of Victor L. Berger, Guy E. Miller, John Spargo, Joshua Wanhope and Ernest Untermann (Untermann had been the first American translator of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital).
By modern standards, the socialists of that day had a frank, detailed and spirited debate for and against mass immigration, and decided by a not insignificant majority to oppose certain kinds of mass immigration.
The proceedings of the 1910 National Congress of the Socialist Party are available online here for anybody to read, so that we can easily delve into their own records.
So what did these radical socialist – and some of them Marxist – comrades from 1910 actually think? I am willing to bet that most modern leftists or Marxists have no clue about this forgotten aspect of their history.
Here is the text of the majority report, accepted by most of the committee established in 1908 to investigate the issue of immigration:
“REPORT OF COMMITTEE ON IMMIGRATION.So, while the majority resolution made an exception for political refugees and immigrants with “a long history of faithful service in the struggle of the working class” (essentially, European immigrants), it advocated significant immigration restriction:
The Socialist party aims to realize a system of society in which economic class distinctions, the foundation of all other class distinctions shall no longer exist, and in which all human beings without regard to nationality or race shall have equal opportunities as members of the industrial army of the world.
In the struggle for the realization of our social ideals it is the duty of the Socialist party to combat vigorously all those tendencies of the capitalist system which weaken the working classes of the different countries in their struggle for emancipation, and to promote and accelerate all those tendencies which increase their power of resistance, raise their standard of living and facilitate the organization and propaganda of the most militant and intelligent portions of the working class.
We recognize, however, that our present decaying capitalistic system generates many contradictory phases and antagonisms which at times compel the Socialist movement in its efforts to conform its acts to the present and immediate interests of the working class, to come into apparent conflict with its ultimate ideals. This, however, is an unavoidable condition of the general law of social progress. We work toward our ultimate ideals through and despite these apparent contradictions. We recognize with Marx that the progress of working class emancipation does not proceed uniformly and by identical methods in all countries, but that the working class of each nation will have first to settle matters with its own ruling class before absolute international working class solidarity can be realized.
The general question of Immigration and Emigration with its multitude of conflicting elements falls clearly into the category of contradictions referred to above. In a conflict between ultimate ideals and immediate class interests, the law of self-government asserts itself above all ultimate ideals. The Socialist Party in its present activities cannot outrun the general development of the working class, but must keep step with it. We agree with the statement of the Communist Manifesto that the Socialists ‘fight for the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the immediate interests of the working class,’ and that precisely ‘in the movement of the present we also represent and take care of the future’ of our movement.
In advocating the policy of restricted immigration, or even the exclusion of specific races, we are not necessarily in contradiction with the essential principles of solidarity of the working class. On the contrary, we are convinced that this policy may, under some conditions, and especially under present conditions in the United States, be the most effective means of promoting the ultimate realization of international and inter-racial solidarity.
We agree with the conclusions of the International Congress at Stuttgart to the effect that ‘Immigration and Emigration of working-men are phenomena as inseparable from the substance of capitalism as unemployment, over-production and under-consumption of the working man, and that they are frequently one of the means to reduce the share of the working men in the product of labor, and that they at times assume abnormal dimensions through political, religious and national persecution.’
Also we thoroughly endorse the statement of the same body that ‘it is the duty of organized working men to protect themselves against the lowering of the standard of life which frequently results from the mass import of unorganized working.’
We believe that this statement applies with peculiar force to conditions in the United States. If it be admitted that the working class of each nation has first to settle matters with its own ruling class; if it be furthermore admitted that by defending the immediate interests of the working class we are taking care of the ultimate ideals of the future; and if it be finally admitted that the principle of national autonomy prevents the International Congresses of the Socialist Party from laying down specific rules for the carrying out of the general principles recognized as valid by all Socialists: then we may well cede the right of the International Congress to declare that it ‘sees no proper solution of these difficulties in the exclusion of definite races and nations from immigration,’ and nevertheless deny that an opposite policy is necessarily ‘in conflict with the principle of proletarian solidarity.’
For this reason we are convinced that we are fully justified in endorsing every demand and position taken by the International Congress in its resolution on Immigration, with the exception of those passages which refer to specific restriction or to the exclusion of definite races or nations.
We do not believe that such measures are necessarily ‘fruitless and reactionary’ as stated by the International Congress, but on the contrary are convinced that any measures which do not conform to the immediate interests of the working class in the United States are fruitless and reactionary.
Such a measure or measures would place the Socialist Party in opposition to the most militant and intelligent portion of the organized workers of the United States, those whose assistance is indispensable to the purpose of elevating the Socialist Party to political power.
We have no special recommendations to make that would enlarge upon the general position on Immigration and Emigration taken by the International Congress in its Stuttgart resolutions. But the present conditions compel us to make an important exception in the matter of exclusion of immigrants from specific and definite nations. This exception refers altogether to the mass immigration of Chinese, Japanese, Coreans [= Koreans] and Hindus to the United States. We advocate the unconditional exclusion of these races, not as races per se—not as peoples with definite physiological characteristics—but for the evident reason that these peoples occupy definite portions of the earth in which they are so far behind the general modern development of industry, psychologically as well as economically, that they constitute a drawback, an obstacle and menace to the progress of the most aggressive, militant and intelligent elements of our working class population.
The larger and more powerful elements of our ruling classes, the great capitalists, the real and effective opponents of the militant working class, are the real beneficiaries of immigration from those countries, and being well aware that these immigrants are accustomed to a much lower standard of living and do not easily assimilate with the other elements of our population, use every means, legal and illegal, to encourage the immigration of these peoples to a point where it becomes an effective competitor against the progressive elements of the working class, serves to lower their standard of living, and constitutes a formidable factor in perpetuating division among the workers by subordinating class issues to racial antagonisms and thus tends to prolong the system of capitalistic exploitation. For this reason the exclusion laws already on the statute books are not only not enforced, but are made largely inoperative by the influence of the powerful interests which desire that this immigration shall continue.
It is true that this legislation was passed mainly by the influence of the middle class in its vain struggle to avoid political and economic extinction, but it has so happened that this legislation promotes the interests of the working class rather than those of its originators.
The exclusion of the above-mentioned peoples does not prevent the disintegration of the middle classes, but it does, on the other hand, assist the workers by lessening the unemployment, maintaining the standard of living, minimizing the number of possible strike-breakers and lessening the various race problems which tend to confuse and divert the working class in its struggle for final emancipation.
In view of the already existing race problem bequeathed to this country by former chattel slavery, every mass immigration of the peoples referred to tends to add to and intensify race issues and relegate the class war to the rear by weakening the political and economic labor organizations and substituting an Asiatic middle class with a lower standard of living than the American. The continuity of such mass immigration would undoubtedly prolong the life of capitalism in this country and constitute a most formidable factor in retarding and relegating to the far distant future the realization of our social ideals.
Just as emphatically as we insist on the exclusion of the races named above, so we on the other hand insist that our position shall not be construed as applicable to those immigrants of other races and nations who have behind them a long history of faithful service in the struggle of the working class and which contain most valuable revolutionary elements much needed here in our common conflict with the exploiting classes.
Especially does this exception refer to immigrant laws from all countries, who, through long centuries of association, not only in struggles against race oppression, but in the general labor struggle, have become an integral and essential part in the world’s revolutionary forces.
Also, it is to be distinctly understood that we are in full agreement with the position taken by the International Congresses which demand freedom of immigration and emigration for political refugees, regardless of their race or nationality.
The Committee has arrived at this conclusion after several years of careful study of all available data. So far as the time limits of this convention permit, individual members of this Committee are prepared to state the general and specific reasons that have led them to the position taken in this report.
We would, however, call attention to the fact that an enormous amount of data has been accumulated on this question, an amount which precludes the presentation of anything more than a general conclusion. We would recommend, in addition, that this mass of data be arranged systematically, with a view to publication in book form for the education of the party membership on this complicated and important question.
Finally, we recommend the continuation of this committee with the same members, or others, as the Convention may decide, for the general opinion of this Committee is that this question is in no sense exhausted, and that new and peculiar phases of it appear from year to year which imperatively demand attention.” (McDermut 1910: 75–77).
“… the present conditions compel us to make an important exception in the matter of exclusion of immigrants from specific and definite nations. This exception refers altogether to the mass immigration of Chinese, Japanese, Coreans [= Koreans] and Hindus to the United States. We advocate the unconditional exclusion of these races, not as races per se—not as peoples with definite physiological, characteristics—but for the evident reason that these peoples occupy definite portions of the earth in which they are so far behind the general modern development of industry, psychologically as well as economically, that they constitute a drawback, an obstacle and menace to the progress of the most aggressive, militant and intelligent elements of our working class population.And the majority report did not seek to exclude them simply because they were racially different, but for pragmatic economic, social and political reasons.
The larger and more powerful elements of our ruling classes, the great capitalists, the real and effective opponents of the militant working class, are the real beneficiaries of immigration from those countries, and being well aware that these immigrants are accustomed to a much lower standard of living and do not easily assimilate with the other elements of our population, use every means, legal and illegal, to encourage the immigration of these peoples to a point where it becomes an effective competitor against the progressive elements of the working class, serves to lower their standard of living, and constitutes a formidable factor in perpetuating division among the workers by subordinating class issues to racial antagonisms and thus tends to prolong the system of capitalistic exploitation. For this reason the exclusion laws already on the statute books are not only not enforced, but are made largely inoperative by the influence of the powerful interests which desire that this immigration shall continue.” (McDermut 1910: 76).
There was also a minority report which was less opposed to mass immigration in the immediate circumstances of 1910, but which made it very clear that it also advocated immigration restriction should large-scale harmful immigration into the US occur:
“MINORITY REPORT ON IMMIGRATIONHowever, the minority report was rejected, and a compromise version of the majority report was adopted as the official policy of the Socialist Party of America.
At the International Socialist Congress held at Stuttgart in 1908 the following resolution upon the subject of immigration was adopted:
‘Immigration and emigration of workingmen are phenomena as inseparable from the substance of capitalism as unemployment, overproduction and underconsumption of the workingmen; they are frequently one of the means to reduce the share of the workingmen in the product of labor, and at times they assume abnormal dimensions through political, religious and national persecutions.
The congress does not consider exception measures of any kind, economic or political, the means for removing any danger which may arise to the working class from immigration and emigration, since such measures are fruitless and reactionary, especially not the restriction of the freedom of emigration and the exclusion of foreign nations and races.
At the same time the congress declares it to be the duty of organized workingmen to protect themselves against the lowering of their standard of life, which frequently results from the mass import of unorganized workingmen. The congress declares it to be their duty to prevent the import and export of strike breakers.
The congress recognizes the difficulties which in many cases confront the workingmen of the countries of a more advanced stage of capitalist development through the mass immigration of unorganized workingmen accustomed to a lower standard of life and coming from countries of prevalently agricultural and domestic civilization, and also the dangers which confront them in certain forms of immigration.
But the congress sees no proper solution of these difficulties in the exclusion of definite nations or races from immigration, a policy which is besides in conflict with the principles of proletarian solidarity.
The congress, therefore, recommends the following measures:I.—For the Countries of Immigration—While this is the expression of the International Congress, it is important to bear in mind that, as declared by the National Executive Committee of the Socialist Party of America, the International national congress has no power to determine tactics for national parties.1. Prohibition of the export and import of such workingmen who have entered into a contract which deprives them of the liberty to dispose of their labor power and wages.II.—For the Countries of Emigration—
2. Legislation shortening the work-day, fixing a minimum wage, regulating the sweating system and house industry and providing for strict supervision of sanitary and dwelling conditions.
3. Abolition of all restrictions which exclude definite nationalities or races from the right to sojourn in the country and from the political and economic rights of the natives or make the acquisition of these rights more difficult for them. It also demands the greatest latitude in the laws of naturalization.
4. For the trade unions of all countries the following principles shall have universal application in connection with it:(a) Unrestricted admission of immigrated workingmen to the trade unions of all countries.5. Support of trade unions of those countries from which the immigration is chiefly recruited.
(b) Facilitating the admission of members by means of fixing reasonable, admission fees.
(c) Free transfer from organizations of one country to those of the other upon the discharge of the membership obligations towards the former organization.
(d) The making of international trade union agreements for the purpose of regulating these questions in a definite, and proper manner and enabling the realization of these principles on an international scope.1. Active propaganda for trade unionism.III. Regulation of the system of transportation, especially on ships. Employment of inspectors with discretionary powers, who should be selected by the organized workingmen of the countries of emigration and immigration. Protection for the newly arrived immigrants, in order that they may not become the victims of capitalist exploiters.
2. Enlightenment of the working-man and the public at large on the true condition of labor in the countries of immigration.
3. Concerted action on the part of the trade unions of all countries in all matters of labor immigration and emigration.
In view of the fact that emigration of workingmen is often artificially stimulated by railway and steamship companies, land speculators and other swindling concerns, through false and lying promises to workingmen, the congress demands:
Control of the steamship agencies and emigration bureaus and legal and administrative measures against them in order to prevent that emigration be abused in the interests of such capitalist concerns.
In view of the fact that the transport of emigrants can only be regulated on international basis, the congress directs the International Socialist bureau to prepare suggestions for the regulation of this question, which shall deal with the conditions, arrangements and supplies of the ships, the air space to be allowed for each passenger as a minimum, and shall lay special stress that the individual emigrants contract for their passage directly with the transportation companies and without intervention of middlemen. These suggestions shall be communicated to the Socialist parties for the purpose of legislative application and adaptation, as well as for the purpose of propaganda.’
It is an advisory body only; its decisions are recommendations, not laws. Therefore, we in America, while paying due and just attention to the suggestions of the International congress, must determine our own position in light of our experience.
Of all the nations of the world no other has an immigration problem of such vast magnitude as that with which the United States has to contend. For reasons inhering in its economic development, this nation has become the ‘melting pot’ of the world.
Men and women of every race and tongue come to this country to the number of more than a million a year, inevitably creating conditions which greatly add to the complexity and difficulty of the struggle of the proletariat of the nation to emancipate itself from the oppression and thrall of capitalism. Diversities of race, creed, language and custom militate against the solidarity of the workers by obscuring in some degree the fundamental class struggle.
Of the workers who are drawn to the United States a large proportion come from countries where the standards of living are inferior to those which the workers of this country have, by long and arduous struggle, established. Such immigrants, whenever they come in large numbers, for a time at least, until they are reached by the economic organizations of this country, commonly become, more or less unconsciously and unwillingly, tools of the capitalist class in their warfare upon the organizations of the working class.
They accept conditions of labor, wages and standards of living lower than those generally prevailing. That this is a temporary phase of the immigration from practically every country is made clear by all the available statistics on the subject.
We must face the fact that the proletariat of the United States differs from the proletariat of every other country in that it is largely constituted of aliens of many races and nationalities, differing in race, language, creed and customs, who find it difficult to understand each other.
We have to-day great industrial centers, of which Gary may be cited as an example, almost wholly made up of foreign speaking workers, of many races, who have not been reached by the economic or political organizations, of the working class of this country.
In ‘Free America’ they are serfs, living and working under an industrial feudalism, little likely, unless special efforts are made to educate and organize them, to become American citizens, able to share effectively in the proletarian struggle as a whole or even to protect their own interests.
Enormous and varied are the difficulties attendant upon the political and economic organization of the working class under these conditions. But they are not insurmountable. They can and must be overcome.
The organized proletariat of this country must, through its political organization, the Socialist Party, and through the labor unions, make a supreme effort to break down the barriers which keep the immigrant workers outside of the organized working class movement.
This nation differs from every other in that a majority of its citizens are either naturalized immigrants from other countries or the children of such immigrants. It is the nation’s task to break down the dividing lines of race, language, and custom and make intelligent citizens of all the varied elements drawn to its shores.
Even more is it the task and opportunity of the workers of the nation to overcome all those barriers which divide our class and so hinder its conquest of the economic resources of the nation.
Upon all essential principles we stand by and affirm the Stuttgart resolution. But, while we agree with its declaration in so far that we see no proper solution of the difficulties arising from mass immigration ‘in the exclusion of definite nations or races from immigration,’ we cannot agree that such exclusion would, if determined upon, be ‘in conflict with the principle of proletarian solidarity.’
We affirm, in opposition to this declaration, that the central, fundamental principle of Socialism is the class struggle; that it is the duty of the Socialist movement to fight the battle of the working class for a higher standard of living; and to protect, at all costs, the measure of civilization we have attained against any and all forces which menace it.
If ever the time comes when the protection of these requires the total exclusion of a race which menaces our standard of living, or our democratic institutions, then, in conformity with the central principle and mission of the Socialist movement, the Socialist Party would be compelled, however regretfully, to stand for that measure.
In view of the present existence of a grave and perplexing race problem in our southern states, the tragic result of the importation of slave labor by the capitalist class, it would be a betrayal of every principle and ideal of the Socialist movement should the Socialist Party, in such an emergency, act otherwise.
But that question is not immediately before us, nor do any available statistics warrant the belief that it is likely to be in the near future. The movement in favor of the exclusion of Asiatic immigration which has so long agitated many of the workers of our western states, is, we believe, due to a misunderstanding of the facts.
The volume of such immigration, including Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Hindoos and Malays, is at present too small to constitute a serious menace; nor are there any signs of a considerable immediate increase. It would, therefore, be unwise for the Socialist Party to advocate Asiatic exclusion at this time.
We call the attention of the workers to the fact that it is perfectly well understood that most of the Asiatic immigration of the present time represents, not the free migration of workers, but practically contract labor.
It is artificially stimulated, subsidized immigration against which the party, in conformity with the Stuttgart resolution, stands with all labor organizations.
We direct the attention of our comrades and all members of our class to this condition, and to the fact that they can only secure protection from the menace of the mass immigration contract laborers by controlling the political powers.” (McDermut 1910: 77–80).
In defending the majority report, the German Marxist Ernest Untermann – who had chaired the Committee on Immigration – also pointed out that there were cultural and social reasons for exclusion:
“Neither Japan nor China has developed a capitalism anything like the United States or Germany. It is in a state of development which at most resembles that of England 100 or 150 years ago, and even most of the peasants still live under the feudal system, and the old communes are just being disintegrated, so that an industrial proletariat is just in the process of formation.Untermann was also well aware that large-scale mass immigration from East Asia would effectively dispossess the European workers of America and make them a minority:
That being the case, economic conditions in China and Japan and among the Hindus make these men not only economically backward but psychologically backward. These men still stand under the influence of Buddhism and Shintoism. They still believe in the ancient code of ethics and do not know anything about modern problems. They are just as lost when they come over to this country as you people would be lost if you were thrown en masse across to China or Japan. You would be in a new world. You would be among people that you would not understand, and you would be among people that would not understand you. That being the case, the tendency would be for you to live an isolated life, to stay away from the actual industrial problems, to work them out for yourselves. And if that is the case, they may as well work them out for themselves in their own country instead of making it more difficult for us by coming over here. ….
This is not a question of superiority of races. I am perfectly willing to grant that the Chinese and Japanese in their physiological qualities as a race are just as good and perhaps superior in some respects to us. That is not the question with us at all. The question with us is whether they as a nation, and occupying a certain geographical territory in a certain development and environment, are in a psychological stage which makes them accessible and assimilable to our ideas and civilization. I deny that emphatically on the strength of the experience of the comrades in the Pacific states.” (McDermut 1910: 87–88).
“It has been argued by some comrades that in this problem race does not go as deep as class. I do not know what they mean by such a phrase. But certainly this is not a question of a struggle between different classes, but of a struggle between the same class of different races. And when it comes to the question of whether we shall be permitted to live in our own house or whether we shall voluntarily abdicate and let somebody ese come into our own house, I should think every sensible man would stand for his own house and for the right to live in it, rather than voluntarily emasculate himself and let somebody else in.” (McDermut 1910: 90).After some days of debate over the issue of immigration restriction between the supporters of the majority and minority reports, a compromise resolution was finally passed 55 to 50 as devised by Morris Hillquit (McDermut 1910: 168):
“The Socialist Party of the United States favors all legislative measures tending to prevent the importation of strike-breakers and contract laborers, and the mass importation of workers from foreign countries, brought about by the employing classes for the purpose of weakening the organization of American labor, and of lowering the standard of life of American workers.This compromise was intended to support mass immigration restriction in practice on pragmatic economic grounds, but allowed immigration of people suffering persecution, and did not call for exclusion on the basis simply of their race.
The party is opposed to the exclusion of any immigrants on account of their race or nationality, and demands that the United States be at all times maintained as a free asylum for all men and women persecuted by the governments of their countries on account of their politics, religion or race.” (McDermut 1910: 157).
As we shall see in a future post, at the May 1912 national convention of the Socialist Party, the majority report on immigration took an even stronger line against mass immigration.
McDermut, Wilson E. 1910. Proceedings. National Congress of the Socialist Party held in Masonic Temple, Chicago, Ill., May 15 to 21, 1910. The Socialist Party, Chicago, Il.
Ross, Jack. 2015. The Socialist Party of America: A Complete History. Potomac Books, Lincoln.