Asiatic Exclusion (1908)

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Asiatic Exclusion (1908)

Post by Celtiberian on Sat Nov 16, 2013 12:36 am

While engaging in research for my paper on the national question I have encountered a number of fascinating articles from Marxist journals, the content of which has largely fallen into obscurity since the regrettable ascent of the New Left. For example, in the following column Cameron H. King, Jr. defends the American proletariat's discontent with Japanese immigration against the few voices in the Socialist Party of America and Second International whom condemned the call for immigration restriction. I find it interestingly analogous to the contemporary left-wing nationalist debates with cosmopolitan leftists on the subject of Mexican immigration into the United States and Asian immigration into Europe.

The antiquated empirical data featured in the article may seem somewhat tedious to certain readers, but it's worth bearing nonetheless. Especially gratifying is King's demonstration of the idealistic (i.e., non-Marxist) assumptions the pro-immigrant left unwittingly harbor.

by Cameron H. King, Jr.—Socialist Party of America delegate, San Francisco, California

The problem of the influx of Asiatic labor into the United States seems to present itself to the Socialist Party in a somewhat different light than it does to other working class organizations. We are, or at least if we ever expect to be a power, we should be a party representative of the working class. Furthermore while we hold fraternal relations with the Socialist Parties of other countries, it is our particular and especial business to develop our own home organization. As scientific Socialists we know the only force which can ever effect the social revolution we hope and work for is the working class. And we know further that the working class can accomplish that revolution only by a powerful and efficient organization. It cannot be achieved in the face of the skilfully organized forces of Capital by a mere mob. It is to the organized working class, therefore, that we must look for our strength and support, for the means of our final victory.

The materialist conception of history teaches that it is folly to expect men in the mass to accept beautiful ideals and work for those ideals as against their present material interests. Marx has clearly shown that it is the material interests and economic necessities of men as individuals and classes that dictates their social conduct and political action. Accepting Marx we are driven inexorably to the position that an organization becomes stronger the more accurately it meets the material interests and economic necessities of the people. Indeed it was for this purpose that the materialist conception of history was made a part of the socialist propaganda—to be a lamp unto our feet, a guide in the darkness, that we would not fall into the morass of impractical schemes while pursuing the beautiful but illusory ideals of altruistic utopianism. So the Communist Manifesto says "The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class."

We have then the organized working class as the means and its material interests and economic necessities as the force by which alone can be achieved the social revolution. We are further limited that this revolution is to be effected, so far as our efforts extend, within the United States, a definite political and geographical territory.

Viewed merely as a matter of political expediency it is evident that the way to gain the good-will and support of the workingman is to aid him to a better condition of life. The sure way to gain his ill-will and hatred is to participate in or advocate the degradation of his standard of life, or to remain neutral while he is sore-pressed by his capitalist enemies. If we are to build up a class conscious workingman's political party then we must appeal to the material interests of the organized workingmen and encourage the betterment of their conditions as far as we are able. Shall we not say "We, the Socialist Party, as workingmen are resolved to use the ballot for our own benefit; we have organized the Socialist party to advance politically our material interests"? Thus we take the scientific socialist position and face the question of Asiatic exclusion from the standpoint of how it will affect us as workingmen.

It is idle for the idealists in the Socialist Party to prate about our duty to the Japanese workingmen or to preach of "internationalism" and fraternity. My personal experience is that it is the professional and small business men who are animated by these noble ideals, and who can cherish them with some safety as Japanese immigration has not yet seriously threatened their livelihood. With the organized workingmen and the unorganized, unskilled laborers, however, it is a different matter. For them to welcome the intense competition of Asiatic immigration with its low standard of living is to immolate themselves on the altar of international ideals and leave their wives and children to go more hungry and ragged than ever. The reply of the workingmen to such a proposition is plain and emphatic. Unanimously in every organization the workingmen of America have declared for the exclusion of Asiatic labor.

In California the exclusion sentiment is so unanimous that all the political parties, depending for power as they all do on popular suffrage, were compelled to subscribe to this demand of Labor for the exclusion of Asiatics. But some Socialists who believe they cannot be truly revolutionary unless they are on the opposite side of the question from everyone else, whose only method of distinguishing the socialist position is to find out what organized labor wants and then take the antagonistic position—these Socialists (save the mark) are bitterly opposing the action of the National Executive Committee. They feel encouraged by the action of the Stuttgart Congress which adopted a long and contradictory resolution expressing the muddled idealism of that body to whom the question was necessarily academic and unrelated to their material interests. Had it been subjected to the touchstone of the economic welfare of the German and French proletarians, there can be little doubt as to the attitude of Bebel and Jaures. Bebel would have declared as he declared in regard to disarmament. "The culture, education, art, and literature of Germany were the heritage of the race, the property of the proletariat and that to defend them was no false patriotism, no treason to the working class." He would have declared that to permit the influx of millions from Asia would be "to put the more advanced nations at the mercy of the more backward ones" and to "adopt such tactics would be fatal to the German Social Democracy." See International Socialist Review, Sept., 1907, p. 133-4. So too would Jaures have spoken defending at all hazards the standard of life of the French workingman. Neither of these men could maintain their position as leaders of the proletarian party did they not always fight for the betterment of the conditions of their constituents. But the American workers were represented by not a man from the West who knows what Asiatic immigration means, and were misrepresented by delegates better acquainted with Europe than with that portion of the United States lying west of New York City. It is significant that the three countries that have Asiatic immigration are opposed to it, viz., South Africa, Australia, and America. The people that are not opposed to it are just those who have none of it. And of course those socialist residents of the United States who import their opinions ready made from Europe and are incapable of applying the fundamental principles of Socialism to the local facts cannot be independent in this matter from the dictum of our well-meaning European Comrades who did not know what they were talking about.

Three reasons all false are adduced for favoring an open shop, for that is the practical meaning of the anti-exclusionist's argument.

First:—It is asserted that the Japanese standard of living is as high as that of the European immigrants or of the native workingman, hence there can be no competition disastrous to the workers already here.

Let us appeal to the facts!

Hawaii has been open to the unrestricted immigration of the Japanese and may therefore be taken as an illustration of what would happen on the mainland of America were the Asiatic given perfect freedom to come. Bulletin No. 66 of the Bureau of Labor deals with the question statistically. The Capitalist planters had declared that "the success of the plantations is conditioned, not only by cheap labor but also by law-abiding and docile labor. White labor is either too expensive or too unreliable for profitable operation." And on this demand the importation of Asiatics began. In 1884 there were some 116 Japanese in the island, the plantations were being operated by whites, Hawaiians, and Chinese. In 1900 there were 56,000 and now there are probably 60,000 Japanese. The percentage of the total population was 0.14% in 1884 and 36.50% in 1900. In 1905 the Japanese constituted 65% of the employees on the sugar plantations. Most of these were contract laborers, whose condition was little removed from serfdom. The testimony of wage schedules and of capitalists combines to show that though strikes have occurred the Japanese are far more law-abiding and docile than any other labor.

The results to the wage schedule are seen in the following figures reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor.

Similar figures can be produced for Pumpmen, Overseers, Teamsters, Painters, Wharfhands, Sugar Boilers and helpers, and other occupations in the Island. These figures taken from occupations where white and Japanese laborers are in competition show conclusively that the Japanese are absolutely the worst paid of the whole population, worse even than the Chinese. Not only are their wages worse but their hours of labor are longer. While in some trades a slight advance in wages has been gained in the past decade, in those occupations peculiarly liable to Japanese competition wages have declined. For instance, Field hands received 73c a day in 1900, 64c in 1902, and 53c in 1905. (This is the average including female labor).

First the unskilled laborers, then the skilled labor, then the petty merchants, the little storekeepers feel the disastrous competition of the Japanese. Hawaii is suffering today from excessive Orientalization. It is dominated by Japanese standards of living. Take the Building trades. In 1881 one establishment employed 41 white carpenters and 7 helpers; 17 more than the seven largest establishments employed in 1905. One establishment employed 6 bricklayers in 1881 and only three were employed by the 7 biggest concerns in 1905. It is not because building has ceased but because the Japanese with their lower wages and longer hours have displaced the whites. The effect on the merchants is evident. They have fewer customers, and these have slenderer purses; and as the Japanese enter business they become rivals.

The standard of living would be debased were the whites compelled to stay on the islands. Fortunately for them California is not as yet inundated by the flood of Asiatic immigration and still offers good wages and fair employment as things go. It costs a white man $40 month to live in Hawaii. The Portuguese however manage to exist on $15 to $20. But the Japanese saves money on $10 a month.

But Hawaii is only a half-way station. They are coming into the mainland at the rate of more than 2,500 a month and in increasing numbers. Unskilled labor has felt this competition for some time being compelled to relinquish job after job to the low standard of living it could not endure. The unskilled laborers are largely unorganized and voiceless. But as the tide rises it is reaching the skilled laborers and the small merchants. These are neither unorganized nor voiceless, and viewing the menace to their livelihood they loudly demand protection of their material interests. This menace is not due to the superior skill of the Japanese but entirely to their inferior standard of subsistence. It was very good of the International Congress to declare that it was 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 workers." But necessity had already taught us that duty. When "the Congress sees no proper solution of these difficulties in the exclusion of definite races from immigration" we are obliged to inquire what is meant by "proper." We of the Pacific Coast certainly know that exclusion is an effective solution. In the seventh decade of the nineteenth century the problem arose of the immigration of Chinese laborers. The Republican and Democratic parties failed to give heed to the necessities of the situation and the Workingman's party arose and swept the state with the campaign cry of "The Chinese must go." Then the two old parties woke up and have since realized that to hold the labor vote they must stand for Asiatic exclusion. It is due to this that we are not now inundated by Chinese coolies in California and faced by a social race and labor problem like that of the South.

The second point urged by those who oppose exclusion perhaps had some weight with the Congress in distinguishing between "proper" and improper solutions. It is said by some of our wise economists that the American workingmen might as well meet the competition of imported Japanese labor as the competition of imported Japanese goods or face their competition in the world market. What reasoning arrives at this conclusion it is hard to discover. It involved the theory of the mutual interest of Capitalists and laborers, that wages depend on the price the manufacturer gets for goods produced. But is it really the same to the American workingman to have his wages (the price he sells his labor for) ground down and his job taken from him by a horde of competing Japanese laborers, as it is to have the price of the goods the capitalists put upon the market ground down by the competition of Japanese goods? In the first place the home markets are saved to the American capitalist by protection, and such employment as that may afford is kept to the American laborer. If the reply be made that the influx of Japanese-made goods into the world-market will cause the shutting down of our factories and the disemployment of labor, we can agree. But will the admission of Japanese laborers into America prevent the Japanese capitalists from flooding the world-market with their cheap-labor products? And as workingmen which do we prefer to see, the competition of American and Japanese capitalists in the world's commodity market, or the competition of American and Japanese laborers in the United States' labor market? While low wages, unemployment and hard time may come from either source, we are bound to protect our own interests first. Let us as workingmen stop as much competition in the home labor market as we can and it will be up to the Capitalist to stop competition in what he has to sell in the world market.

Consider the attitude of the workingman in this matter. He looks naturally to the nearest and last-acting cause of his discharge for the key to a remedy. Though he may dimly perceive remoter causes it is the one right at hand that most powerfully impresses him. We can depend on a great deal of discontent from the man who is thrown out of a job. When the cause of his discharge is a wage-worker cheaper in price, different in color, peculiar in manners and alien in speech all the resentment of the discharged workingman will be directed against this "foreign labor," race prejudice will flare up and the bitter hate of a "scab race" will crush out the last semblance of "brotherly love" and "international solidarity." Protestant Yankee against Catholic Irish, Catholic Irish against the "dagoes" all of them against the "sheeny," and on the Pacific Coast the fierce hoodlumism of a Denis Kearney, group-consciousness in the group-struggle to survive! You cannot do away with this by preaching class consciousness and international solidarity. The material conditions are fatal to those ideals dealing with the question in that way.

On the other hand, what is the result when the proximate cause of the workman's discharge is the closing down of the factory? He sees then not that there is a job there but that a "foreigner" has it; he sees that the job is gone. The capitalists who have been taking exorbitant profits out of his labor and justifying themselves on the ground that they were providing the workers with a job, have broken this arrangement. They no longer provide the worker with a job. Their ability to dispose of the workman's product and get their profit—this ability suddenly vanishes. The capitalists are up against it. Their system of doing business has failed. And when the capitalist business system fails to provide him with the means of life all the revolutionary impulse of the discharged workman's sense of injury is turned, not against a fellow-workers, nor used to fan the flames of race hatred, but becomes the power and energy that drives him into an attack on the capitalist system.

We have now an immense amount of unemployment and the discontent is powerfully felt in the increase of the socialist strength. Shall we turn to the workingman who is now taking refuge with us, because the capitalist system has failed to give him the means of life, and say, "We propose to let the Japanese laborers come here in unrestricted numbers, though they work for half or a third of what you do and will undoubtedly displace you in the small amount of work that hard times has left to the toilers of America." If we do say that we should be locked up alongside of Harry Thaw in the Asylum for the Criminally Insane. It seems almost too preposterous to argue!

However it is not to be supposed that Comrade Boudin will be daunted. Japanese cannot become citizens and practice law, attorneys' fees are in no danger. And well may he "laugh at scars who never felt a wound." I mean simply that Comrade Boudin cannot appreciate the gravity of the situation any more than the European Socialists. His material interests being unaffected he can indulge that natural propensity for idealism which flourishes in academic speculation. I will grant him more. Earnestly and sincerely, coming from a country and being of a race that has suffered persecution and race hatred, his nature revolts at the idea of race exclusion. But that does not qualify him to formulate the policy of a political party in America. Nor does he reason logically nor does the International have good grounds for declaring that exclusion is "in conflict with the principles of proletarian solidarity."

International solidarity does not mean international competition. What monstrous twisting of "Workingmen of the World, Unite!" gives us the slogan "Workingmen of the World, Compete!" Is it our duty to invite the Japanese here to take our jobs at half the wage we get? Or in addition to the great task of organizing the polyglot mass of workers already here are we to have thrust upon us the task of amalgamating the Japanese? And for what and by whom? For a mere phrase! By people necessarily unappreciative of the immensity of the task!

I say a "mere phrase" for absolutely no substantial gain can be pointed out from unrestricted immigration. For Japan it would mean the loss of the boldest and most enterprising of her proletariat. These men kept at home would turn their strength to upbuilding the unions and the Socialist party there, economic pressure would so compel them. But by immigration they encounter better conditions and the revolutionary impulse is lost in the opportunities for advancement. As for us our first duty is to ourselves; to make ourselves strong enough to achieve the social revolution here in the United States. The best service we can do the Japanese is just that. And let them settle their own fight at home. The gain in wages of the Japanese immigrants would not mean a gain to the Japanese proletarians who have the work of the Japanese fight for Socialism upon them. To the American worker it would mean the loss of a standard of living gained at great cost. It would mean the diversion of revolutionary energy into race riots.

Internationalism means that we do not believe in the wars of aggression and invasion that have marked the world's history heretofore. If we do not believe in military invasion can we consent any more readily to an economic invasion? Herve's impassioned declarations that the French workers have nothing to lose by a German invasion and German domination indicates that were there a loss his anti-militarism would be modified. His hold on the French workers is conditioned by their belief that they would be as well off under German capitalists as under the French. But if the Germans came into France with nothing in learning, nothing in culture, nothing in aid of art or science, if they brought only a grievous menace to the standard of life of the French workers, would Herve still say they should not be opposed or would he be listened to if he did?

In conclusion we may say that the time has come for the Socialist Party to decide what its relation shall be to the working class. Are we going to bend the knee in worship of the idealistic phrase "The Brotherhood of Man" or are we going to affirm our solidarity with American labor and struggle to prevent the destruction of its hard won standard of life? In short are we to remain idealists out of touch with red-blooded, self-assertive life or are we to take our place in the workingman's struggle for existence, organizing his forces and always fighting for an advance in his means of life? Our feelings of brotherhood toward the Japanese must wait until we have no longer reason to look upon them as an inflowing horde of alien scabs. So long as the fact remains the enmity born of those facts will abide with us.
International Socialist Review, Vol. VIII (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1908), pp. 661-669.

RSF Executive Committee (Chairman)
"The dogma of human equality is no part of Communism . . . the formula of Communism: 'from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs', would be nonsense, if abilities were equal."
—J. B. S. Haldane Hammer Sickle

"Nationality. . . is a historic, local fact which, like all real and harmless facts, has the right to claim general acceptance. . . Every people, like every person, is involuntarily that which it is and therefore has a right to be itself. . . Nationality is not a principle; it is a legitimate fact, just as individuality is. Every nationality, great or small, has the incontestable right to be itself, to live according to its own nature. This right is simply the corollary of the general principle of freedom."
—Mikhail Bakunin Red Star

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