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The Inimitable Marxists: The Finnish Immigrant Socialists

John I. Kolehmainen

"Their thirst for knowledge is amazing. They are natural-born speakers. They are inimitable, bold, proletarian, revolutionary, Marxist."* When an obscure Dr. Herman Titus proffered this sweetsmelling bouquet to the Finnish-American Socialists, thereby winning an enduring place in their affections, there was an occasional and proper remonstrance. The editor of a working-class newspaper gulped, and managed to say: "Oh if this were altogether true!" Several others mumbled something about rhetorical praise.1

Yet if the truth be told, a surprisingly large number of immigrant Socialists were of the opinion that their achievements prior to the first World War merited good words.

Bread and butter Socialism, disregarding an American newspaperman's rash assertion that "the Finnish people are too intelligent to be fooled by the bare-brained doctrines of Socialism", advanced swiftly, especially in the years after 1903.2 "That Jew Karl Marx" triumphed over the utopianism of Matti Kurikka and swallowed up a potpourri of humanitarianism, petit-bourgeois reformism, nationalism, Tolstoyian anarchism, free thought, and theosophy, masquerading as a working-class movement. Sundry dream books as well as the writings of Robert Ingersoll, Robert Blatchford, and Edward Bellamy, were relegated to the kindergarten as an increasing number of immigrants took to the sterner studies of Marx, Friedrich Engels, Karl Kautsky and Werner Sombart.

As was to be expected, religious and temperance leaders rose in righteous wrath to stop the forward-marching Reds. Many stratagems were tried. Police were told to jail Socialist organizers; one of the latter wrote from northern Minnesota:

I was imprisoned yesterday in Ely as an anarchist. Some Finns had informed the police, I was finally released when Dr. Tanner [a Finnish practitioner] took personal responsibility for me. In [the neighboring town of] Virginia I was yelled "down and out". I'm glad God has blessed me with a happy disposition and long legs.3

Municipal councils were petitioned to enact ordinances forbidding the display of red flags. Local newspapers were asked to print denunciatory resolutions which, like the following, were imaginatively composed with a Finnish-English dictionary in one hand and a thesaurus in the other:

Socialistic utopian ideas are fed by Atheism, which cannot benefit any class of people; neither ,the unfortunate, whom it bereaves of hope; nor the prosperous, whose joys it renders insipid; nor the woman, whose beauty and modesty it mars; nor the mother, who has a son to lose; nor the rulers of men, who have no surer pledge of the fidelity of their subjects than religion.4

Despite or perhaps because of such opposition, the so-called emissaries of anti-Christ allured a swelling number of immigrants into the Socialist ranks; but only-charged the conservatives-by resorting to "the cunningness of the knave, the adroitness of the unscrupulous politician, and with the assistance of the rejected angel".

By 1911 the red flag was waving boldly in no less than 217 Finnish settlements in the United States. Over nine thousand men and women were banded together in the Finnish Socialist Federation, which had been organized in 1906 and became the American Socialist Party's first foreign-language federation. The following table indicates the growth of the Finnish-American Socialist movement:










No. of Chapters


















Vociferous, aggressively-edited party journals - the Pioneer of Fitchburg, Massachusetts; the Comrade of Astoria, Oregon; and the Worker of Hancock, Michigan - challenged capitalism with an unceasing barrage of provocative slogans: "Fraternity! Freedom! Equality! Proletariat unite! Labor is the source of all wealth! Knowledge is power! Solidarity is strength!"

Near Duluth, Minnesota, stood a yeasty ideological citadel. The Socialists had rescued a so-called People's College from the "men of darkness" in 1907, and added the significant word "Work" to its title. Of course, the losers - a group of Finnish Lutherans - took a dim view of the developments; one of their leaders wrote: "My pen scarcely stays in my fingers when I reflect about the fate of our college."

Modesty seldom gilds a new champion.

So it was with the Finnish immigrant Socialists. Heads swelled. An inner voice - not that of the Good Fairy surely - kept insisting that they had no peers as alert, active, and informed fighters for social justice. Pity, tinged with scorn, was manifested toward those who in their stupidity had not learned of the new salvation:

If they but knew, the wretches,
The slaves led like children,
If they knew what freedom is,
If they could but taste it,
Like a swift torrent of water,
They would rush forward,
Moving mountains from their path.6

It became easy for the immigrants to find fault with both the Old Country and the American Socialist movements and hard for them to observe the mote in their own eyes or to confess that their comrades in Finland and the United States had contributed to their success.

The socialist movement on the other side of the ocean, recklessly charged the immigrants, was hopelessly provincial. Feuant leases, garden patches for the cottagers, and other backyard issues - these seemed to be the chief concern of the Old World leaders.

The Finnish-Americans were men of a loftier breed. One of the prominent immigrants declared:

The soul of the immigrant is too large to permit him ever to become enthusiastic about the small concerns that take up much of the time of the Old Country Socialists. The Finnish-American Socialist has completed his class-struggle course in the school of Morgan and Rockefeller. Whether the struggle is on the trade union or political front, he is always opposed by a billion dollar Capital, which is well organized in trusts and is supported by its hired courts, congress, and state legislatures. Every petty aspiration and demand is gone from the worker's soul in a country where the workingclass is confronted at every step by the allpowerful might of a world-dominant Capitalism.

In America - the great melting pot of peoples - the workingclass movement must perforce be international. The immigrant is a cosmopolite in the true meaning of the word; he carries in the recesses of his soul two worlds: the old and the new. He cannot for a moment think of freeing America from Capitalist oppression without at the same time thinking of Europe's delivery.7

To make matters worse, the Old Country Socialists, the immigrants often complained, refused to accept the guidance of their brethren who returned to Finland after eye-opening stays in the New World. "The masters of the Old Country Socialist movement had little use for us Finnish-American Socialists", angrily exclaimed a newspaperman after getting back to the states.

We were dismissed with the insinuation, "Ah, yes, they are those Americans, who stick their noses into every corner, criticizing matters about which they know nothing." It was clear that their advice to us was: "Brother, you may leave; you don't belong with us." Little wonder that the returned emigrant, experiencing this cold indifference, this stupid contempt, feels bitter disappointment tearing at his soul.8

Such forthright criticism invited retaliation, and, as a matter of fact, not many visitors from the Old Country resisted the temtation to indulge in some fault finding of their own. One of them observed pointedly that the Finnish-American Socialist committees limped badly from lack of adequate authority; that elections and referenda were held almost every other week; that discipline was hard to secure. He asserted that the word discipline:

has become a symbol of horror to the immigrants, who almost without exception believe that they must enjoy perfect freedom in Freedom's Land; they have had, as they say, enough of discipline and submission at the hands of the Old Country clergy, officials, and aristocracy.9

The comments of another Social Democrat were far more pungent:

Nowhere in the world are newspaper columns filled with such torrents of official, semiofficial, and unofficial resolutions, proclamations, statements, and records of the local chapters, committees, boards, individuals, and groups, in perpetual conflict with one another, nagging, splitting hairs, bickering, arguing, and ending where they began-in inextricable confusion.10

Name-calling tended to obscure the reciprocal influences operating between the two movements.

Immigrant Socialism was for many years a child of the Old Country. Both its content and its leadership came from Finland. As the new gospel's first apostle testified: "Socialism with us is a kind of immigrant baggage. All the prominent workers in the Socialist vineyard are Old Country Socialists."11

Such, indeed, was the case in the seven years from 1898 on, when the despotic policies of a group of fanatical Russophiles, headed by Nikolai Bobrikov, the hated govemor-general of Finland from 1898 to 1904, drove many able and ardent Socialists, among them Alfred F. Tanner, Vihtori Kosonen, Taavi Tainio, and Eetu Salin, to the safety of the New World. These men quickly realized "where the Finnish-American movement should go and what it had to do". As editors, speakers, and organizers they carried on a militant propaganda campaign that secured their objectives late in 1904; the ideologically-muddled immigrant working-class movement was clothed in a single-hued, crimson garb; it was given a monotoned class-struggle voice; it was led to the altar where the American Socialist Party waited for its first foreign-language bride.

While some of these émigré Socialists returned to the homeland when freer winds began to blow there in 1905-6, the Old Country's influence upon the immigrant movement continued unabated. For one thing, the character of emigration was changing: an increased proportion of emigrants now came from the cities of Finland, where they had been in contact with the swiftly-rising Socialist movement. Like their predecessors, these Marxist replacements found important niches for themselves in the immigrant movement.

In addition, a steady and voluminous stream of books, pamphlets, and newspapers flowed from Finland's busy working-class presses to the reading-rooms of the immigrant halls and the desks of journalists and organizers, from where their contents quickly spilled out among a large constituency. Interest in Old Country developments ran high; the immigrants avidly read about the Social Democratic party's rise to powe r -its first congress at Turku in 1899; its amazing victory of eighty seats in the first elections to the new unicameral diet in 1907; its fight for life when the long-suffering fatherland was put back into the straitjacket of Russian oppression around 1908. Justifiably the immigrants declared: "We follow with great interest the struggle which our Finnish comrades are waging and about which many of us have fresh memories as participants."

As a consequence, many immigrants were more familiar with, and better grounded in, the Finnish and European varieties of Socialism than the American. They found themselves looking to the Old World for modes of action, for answers to problems that were peculiarly American.

It must be added that the Finnish Socialists in the eastern United States were consistently more sensitive to these Old Country influences than their comrades in the Middle West and the Mountain States. This is revealed, for example, in the outcome of the acrimonious dispute over industrial unionism that plagued the Finnish Socialist Federation from its birth on and was responsible for a major schism in 1914. In the central and western districts the Socialists lost thirty-eight locals with a combined membership of nearly thirty-five hundred to the radical supporters of industrial unionism - about one half of the federation's strength in these regions. However, this should not be construed as an ideological victory per se. As a matter of fact, many immigrants had never read the constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World. They did know, on the other hand, that the Western Federation of Miners had badly mismanaged the crucial Mesabi and copper strikes; they felt the unrelenting barbarity of the steel trust and the Boston copper magnates. In utter desperation they turned to what seemed to be their last hope for an early victory - the one big union.12

Losses in the East, in contrast, were negligible. To be sure, other powerful factors joined the influences coming from across the Atlantic Ocean to keep the eastern section of the immigrant Socialist movement free from syndicalist discord. In the East to a much greater degree than elsewhere the settlers were recent arrivals, urban in origin, and skilled workers, who accepted the old-line trade unions as a matter of course. At Fitchburg was an influential champion of orthodoxy and caution, the daily Pioneer. One of its editors, attempting to land a knockout blow, asserted, I have read Marx's Das Kapital through six times, and I haven't found anything in it about industrial unionism."13

This interest in Old Country Socialism, which perhaps in extreme cases approximated a kind of thralldom, was not to the advantage of the American party. As a well-informed author of a recent study of the Finnish-American working-class movement points out:

The development of the American Socialism movement, especially in its search for best forms of procedure, suffered from the incontestable fact that the foreign born ... lived in so many ways under the influence of their old homelands, from which they sought guidance.14

In contrast, American influences bearing upon the Old Country movement were slight. While the Finnish immigrants frequently extended moral and financial support to their comrades across the sea - in 1910, for example, they raised $3,500 for a Fight for Finland’s Freedom Fund - these gestures did not perceptibly affect the development of the Old Country movement.

On the other hand, it is quite probable that among the Socialists returning to the fatherland were some whose patterns of thought and action had been modified by their sojourn in the New World. Although regrettably scattered and fragmentary, the evidence is suggestive. For example, the activity of a number of Social Democratic chapters was energized by an unmistakable American tempo. Fever spots identifiable as midwestern radicalism were observable here and there, introduced by individuals who, like Kaapo Murros, had been enraptured by Haywoodian doctrines. Residence in the Land of Freedom often loosened vocal cords. Many a Yankee, forgetting that a Russian-censored Finland was not America, found himself betrayed by his tongue; Eetu Salin, for one, spent two years in prison shortly after his return from America.15

Old Country conditions and attitudes, however, stood in the way of any widespread or lasting impress. A general suspicion of the American labor movement; reluctance to accept even class-struggle Prodigal Sons on equal terms (the latter, by the way, sometimes insisted on preferential treatment because of their American "schooling" and this didn't help matters any); the cautious and circumscribed role that the Social Democratic party was compelled to adopt during the years of Russian pressure - these rather effectively stifled impulses emanating from the United States.

Eugene V. Debs, leader of the American Socialist movement, was idolized by the Finnish immigrants. One of the crowd on hand to greet the Red Special as it pulled into Hancock in September, 1908, later recalled, "No train whistle ever sounded more melodious, more promising. It was like music, a song of praise to our presidential candidate."

Deb's performance at a rally that evening was masterful. One immigrant was moved to lavish praise. He wrote:

He is a speaker without a peer, personally charming, magnetic. As he spoke, he moved about like a graceful actor. His voice was flexible and obedient, following every intonation of his words. Sometimes it promised, then it defied, assuaged, condemned. All the while his gesturing hands emphasized his arguments. Never has Hancock heard such a speech on the conflict of Capital and Labor. So clear and simple, yet so unflinching. Great, indeed, was the occasion - and deathless the impression he left on his listeners.16

The party of Debs, on the other hand, was sometimes treated far less generously. "One is amazed at the poverty of the Socialist party's program", reported a delegate returning from a national convention. "All it has is a few nice phrases. There is a rumor to the effect that its drafting was entrusted to a clergyman, who scribbled something and put it together in this or that office."

"Their organization is wretched", complained another immigrant.

The party's speakers regard themselves as important lords; it's impossible to move them without paying a fee of several hundred dollars. The party's press is swamped with unnecessary workers; for example, Wayland and his Appeal to Reason has an army as large as that of the Tsar of Russia. All in all, it's like pouring water down a stove pipe. There aren't any practical results.17

There were other censures, originating for the most part in the left wing of the immigrant movement. The Americans spent most of their time in electioneering and in armchair philosophizing about abstract economic issues; a handful of self-seeking politicians was virtually in control of the party machinery; loyalty to the class struggle was distressingly weak, especially among the journalists, who thought nothing of writing for the capitalist press. "A heinous crime!" shouted the radicals. "Class lines must be kept distinct!"

The American Socialists, acting like the average run of human beings, returned the compliments. The immigrants were accused of indifference toward the national movement.

You Finns have your own halls, newspapers, and organizations. You're reluctant to break the shell of your comfortable little world, and you take refuge in the pretext, "We must first make Socialists of our immigrants, we cannot expect them to join American locals for a long time."18

Obviously not all was well in the relations between the two.

For a time following October, 1904, when the immigrants, under the constant prodding of Old Country Socialists, voted to join the American party, hopes for close and fruitful cooperation were high. A relatively small, floundering, and motley immigrant movement, it was expected, would shortly become an integral part of an united and mighty Socialist army. From the Americans would come discipline, uniformity, and direction: a constitution, bylaws, a national program. Confidently the Finns looked ahead; their leaders reassured them, "Now the Finnish-American working-class movement is on the right road; now we can sit down on the benches of men."

There was, to be sure, some ineffectual opposition from those who wanted to keep the immigrant movement free from any outside associations. "The Finns in America", argued one of the dissenters, are so few in number in comparison to the other nationalities that they cannot influence in any way either the program or the practices of the Socialist Party. These will always be determined by the larger groups. The Finns will be merely an insignificant extension of the tail.19

In large measure the prophecy was fulfilled. The immigrants, for example, suggested that the party program be strengthened by adding planks on cooperatives, temperance, and women's rights, and proposed that the Socialists concentrate on the building of visible symbols of working-class solidarity, such as municipally-owned water plants and apartments on the Vienna model. "In party headquarters", to cite the opinion of a Finnish-American writer, "the voice of the Finnish members was very little heard".20

Beyond this, the foreign-language federation arrangement seemed unable to bring about any kind of organic unity between the American and immigrant groups. For the most part the rank and file lived in separate worlds.

It must be admitted that the Finns generally were not eager to break down the separating barriers. Learning the English language seemed an insuperable difficulty; many took the easier road of trying to get along with their mother tongue. When nationalistic considerations clashed, as they sometimes did, with obligations accruing from membership in the American party, it was the latter that yielded. Finally, the Socialists, as well as other immigrants, manifested a deep-rooted longing - which their leaders did not always take sufficiently into their calculations - to live by themselves, to work out their destinies free from interference and with a minimum of external responsibilities.

The isolation of the Finnish immigrant Socialists, however, suffered from a fatal defect: it was not complete. The Finnish Socialist Federation's tie-up with the American party, though loosely organized, was nonetheless close enough to allow every storm (they came in dizzying succession) and every rupture in the American movement to be transferred, after a short time lag, to the immigrant arena. Verily, how the war drums thundered and the swords clanged as Finns fought Finns over issues not of their making - industrial unionism before the first war, Communism afterward. As a result, the once-impressive immigrant working-class movement for decades has been a hopelessly mangled, divided, dying force.

Not a few battle-scarred survivors are toying with the conclusion that the immigrants paid a heavy price for what few blessings came to them by way of the American movement. Perhaps the other road - their troubled consciences whisper - that of an independent immigrant movement, not seeking to remake the social order but merely to minister to the daily needs of Finns placed by fate in a strange and often hostile world, would have been a wiser choice.

Other veterans refuse to take consolation in the rearranging of history. In their opinion, the immigrant working-class movement really had no alternative to throwing in its lot with the American Socialist Party - win or lose.

Whatever the record of Finnish-American Socialism as a political movement, it has assured for itself a distinguished epitaph by its cultural and educational achievements. But that, of course, is another story.

*This paper was read at the annual meeting of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association, April, 1952.

[1] Seattle (Washington) Socialist, July 18, 1908; Hancock Työmies, July 28, 1908.
[2] Conneaut (Ohio) Post-Herald, August 1, 1900. The standard works on the Finnish-American working-class movement are F. J. Syrjälä, Historia-aiheita Ameriikan Suomalaisesta Työväenliikkeestä (Fitchburg, Massachusetts, n.d.) and Elis Sulkanen, Amerikan Suomalaisen Työväenliikkeen Historia (Fitchburg, 1951). For a survey of the literature see the writer's The Finns in America: A Bibliographical Guide to Their History, 56-64 (Hancock, 1947).
[3] The organizer was Vihtori Kosonen, whose letter is quoted in Työmies Kymmenvuotias 1903-1913, Juhlajulkaisu, 66-67 (Hancock, 1913). The reminiscenses of another famous organizer, Martin Hendrickson, may be found in Muistelmia Kymmenvuotisesta Raivaustyöstäni (Fitchburg, 1909).
[4] Texts of these so-called Judas Resolutions are printed in the Hancock Amerikan Suometar, February 19, 1908; Ashtabula (Ohio) Amerikan Sanomat, April 1, 1908; and Syrjälä, Historia-aiheita, 73.
[5] J. A. Partanen, "Hieman numeroita S. S. järjestöstä", Tietokäsikirja 1913 Amerikan Suomalaisille, 208-16 (Fitchburg, 1913), presents a detailed review of the movement's condition in 1913.
[6] Aku Päiviö, Kokoelma runoja, 37 (Fitchburg, Massachusetts, 1912).
[7] The statement was made by Aku Rissanen, who returned to the United States in 1906 or 1907 after a short and uncomfortable sojourn in the Old Country. It was published in either the Köyhälistön Nuija or Säkeniä.
[8] A short article written by Aku Rissanen and published in one of the Finnish-American periodicals around 1907 or 1908. The writer is unable to verify this citation since his files are stored in Ohio and he at present is in New York.
[9] Työväen Kalenteri, 6:165 (Hancock, 1915). See also Köyhälistön Nuija, 3:22-28 (Hancock, 1909), and Työmies Kymmenvuotias, 64.
[10] Säkeniä, VIII, 144-49 (March, 1914).
[11] The apostle tells his story in "Silmäys taaksepäin", Työväen Kalenteri, 1:96-106 (Hancock, 1904).
[12] There is no satisfactory study dealing exclusively with Finnish-American syndicalism. Santeri Nuorteva has a short sketch in the appendix of John Spargo's Syndikalismi, Teollisuusunionismi ja Sosialismi (Fitchburg, 1914). See also David J. Saposs. Left Wing Unionism. A Study of Radical Policies and Tactics, 139-42 (New York, 1926).
[l3] Raivaaja 10 vuotta, 63 (Fitchburg, 1915).
[14] Sulkanen, Amerikan Suomalaisen Työväenliikkeen Historia, 55.
[15] See, for example, the comments on Finnish-American Socialists who returned to the Old Country in Y. K. Laine, Suomen Poliittisen Työväen Liikkeen Historia (Helsinki, 1947); Väinö Tanner, Nuorukainen Etsii Sijaansa Yhteiskunnassa 306-7 (Helsinki, 1948); Mikko Ampuja, Pajasta Parlamenttiin, 90 (Helsinki, 1947).
[16] Työmies 40-vuotias, 1903-1943, 73-75 (Superior, Wisconsin, 1943).
[17] The views in this and the preceding paragraphs were expressed at the Hibbing, Minnesota, meeting of the Finnish Socialist Federation in 1906. See its Pöytäkirja (Proceedings), 95, 130. Similar sentiments are revealed in Köyhälistön Nuija, 1:50-51 (1907).
[18] Pöytäkirja (Proceedings) of the 1912 meeting of the Finnish Socialist Federation at Smithville, Minnesota, 200. See also Arne Halonen, "The Role of Finnish-Americans in the Political Labor Movement", 61, M.A. thesis, University of Minnesota, 1945.
[19] New York Amerikan Työmies, February 27, March 20, 1900.
[20] Halonen, "The Role of Finnish-Americans", 3.

Published in Michigan History Vol. 36, 1952, p. 395-405.

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