Friday, November 18, 2016

Eugene Debs on Immigrants

Immigrants have frequently been blamed for unemployment, crime and other social ills. Attempts to reduce or block immigration have been justified as necessary measures to protect “our way of life” from alien influences.

Eugene Debs inherited the prevailing prejudices of the American worker and reflected the Know-Nothing Party of the time. He attacked the immigration agents as representatives of capital – “enemies of American workingmen” who wished to “chinaize the county” and he openly welcomed legislation that permitted the authorities to return “to their despot cursed home” the “victims” of these agent’s efforts.

 Debs found the Italian’s even less desirable than the Chinese. “The Dago” he claimed “works for small pay, and lives far more like a savage or a wild beast, than the Chinese,” This Italian “fattens on garbage” and cares little for civilization, and therefore, “able to underbid an American workingman” Only in this way can the Italian appear industrious and Debs warned that Italy “has millions of them to spare and they are coming”

Jews fared little better. When it was announced that the London Board of Guardians had instated a program to transfer Russian-Jewish immigrants to the United States, Debs claimed that that this would increase the already increasing hostility towards immigrants. Identifying these immigrants as “criminals and paupers” Debs bemoaned the fact that most were able to “take up a permanent  residence” and strongly asserted that “it was possible to end the infamous business”

Debs views on negroes at no time ran counter to the ARU members anti-black feelings. Reporting that a new Texas law required separate coaches for black and white Deb’s stated “There might come a time when in the South whites and blacks will be on terms of social equality, till then it were better to fight separately”

Debs supported without any record of dissent the Brotherhoods attempts to rid the railroad of black firemen and the anti-black clause in the Fireman’s constitution.
His attitude, however, took a great change and in 1910 he was writing this:
“If Socialism, international, revolutionary Socialism, does not stand staunchly, unflinchingly, and uncompromisingly for the working class and for the exploited and oppressed masses of all lands, then it stands for none and its claim is a false pretense and its profession a delusion and a snare.
Let those desert us who will because we refuse to shut the international door in the faces of their own brethren; we will be none the weaker but all the stronger for their going, for they evidently have no clear conception of the international solidarity, are wholly lacking in the revolutionary spirit, and have no proper place in the Socialist movement while they entertain such aristocratic notions of their own assumed superiority.
Let us stand squarely on our revolutionary, working class principles and make our fight openly and uncompromisingly against all our enemies, adopting no cowardly tactics and holding out no false hopes, and our movement will then inspire the faith, arouse the spirit, and develop the fiber that will prevail against the world.”

The early bigoted views of Debs all changed from his growing experience. Incorporating immigrants rather than excluding them made the labor unions and the socialist parties ever stronger, as the influence of the foreign-born sections of the Industrial Workers of the World, Socialist Labor Party and Socialist Party testifies. These positive developments were highlighted by the Scots/Irish immigrant James Connolly when he was a labour organizer active in America, bringing together the Irish and the Italians and many other nationalities in the mills and factories. 


Unknown said...

The claim is made that Debs is fairly racist and anti-immigrant until 1910, but as early as 1903 Debs takes a vehement stand against racism, even replying to an anonymous letter in the Internationa Socialist Review ending with, "For myself, I want no advantage over my fellow man and if he is weaker than I, all the more is it my duty to help him.
Nor shall my door or my heart be ever closed against any human being on account of the color of his skin."

ajohnstone said...

William, i am a great admirer of Debs and i'm aware of your citation and it should have been included.

The point of the post was to highlight that people can change their prejudices by experience as did Debs as his political ideas matured. I don't think you dispute the veracity of the questionable views of Debs that were quoted which were pre-1903 and it is my bad writing that makes it seem it was as late as 1910 that his ideas became less clouded by racism.

He struggled hard against elements in the SPA and trade union movement that were anti-immigration. The Socialist Party of Canada also had an internal disagreement on the issue of immigrants.

Again the point is being made by some present-day leftists that there is a case for immigration controls and this is a position the blog opposes.

That someone such as Debs who at one time expressed anti-foreigner sentiments could later reject such politics is the example those misguided left-wingers should adopt.

Thanks for drawing attention to the blog's badly worded implication that it was only 1910 that Debs took up the anti-racism battle