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The Roots of Finnish-American Left-Wing Radicalism

Reino Kero

One of the special characteristics of the Finnish-American immigrant group from the beginning of the twentieth century through to the 1970's has been that left-wing movements have had a noticeably firmer hold among the Finns than among immigrants in America, generally. They differ from the immigrants from other Scandinavian countries, for example, to a great degree. Thus, while the support given left-wing ideologies by Swedish, Norwegian and Danish immigrants has been quite insignificant, the Finns have taken a very active part in three, different left-wing movements: socialism, syndicalistic I.W.W. unionism and communism have each had a rather large group of Finnish supporters.

There were perhaps circumstances in America that caused Finns to react in a completely different manner politically than other Scandinavians. The common conception that Swedes, for example, learned English very quickly, while the Finnish immigrant group had extremely great difficulties in learning English, is probably correct. The difference between Finns and Swedes here is probably due above all to the fact that Swedish is much closer to English in its vocabulary than Finnish is. Primarily because of linquistic reasons, the Finns isolated themselves within their own language group toward which American society felt suspicious, more so apparently than toward other Scandinavian groups. These suspicions became powerful particularly after the socialistic workers' movement had gained a foothold among Finnish-Americans. The Finnish immigrant who found himself on the black list was not a rarity at this time.

In studying the roots of Finnish-American left-wing radicalism, it may be said that Finnish conditions favored the emergence of this American radicalism. In the first place, it must be noted that emigration from Finland was at its greatest at the same period when the social democratic workers' movement in Finland was making its "breakthrough". Secondly, it was probably of extreme importance that, around 1900 when the so-called "frost years" were occuring in Finland, many leaders of the Finnish workers' movement, such as Matti Kurikka, Vieno Severi Alanne, Leo Laukki, Santeri Nuorteva, and Aku Rissanen, were forced to migrate to America as exiles.1 Thus, because of the political crisis that dominated in Finland, Finnish-Americans obtained a capable leadership that had a very great significance in the organization of the FinnishAmerican workingmen's movement in its early stages. A third very important Finnish factor that effected Finnish-American left-wing radicalism was the war that occurred in Finland in 1918 in which opposition between the Finnish right and the Finnish left intensified into armed conflict. Finnish-Americans followed this war very closely, and it aggravated relationship within the FinnishAmeriean left-wing, as well as those between the right and the left.2

In comparing the backgrounds of Finns and of other Scandinavians, there is doubtlessly reason to stress the fact that the main body of Finnish immigrants arrived in America, much later than other Scandinavians. Thus the majority of Swedish immigrants, for example, arrived in America before socialism had obtained a foothold in Sweden, while Finnish immigrants for the most part arrived at a stage when the Social Democratic Party already had widespread support in Finland. On the other hand, however, there is perhaps also reason to emphasize the fact that, still in the twentieth century, Swedish immigration was greater than Finnish immigration in absolute figures, so that raw material should also have been available for Swedish-American left-wing movements.

The majority of Finnish-Americans had left from Vaasa and Oulu provinces which were extremely right-wing in the early 1900's. Thus, while the Social Democratic Party received 37.0 % of the votes cast in the entire country in the first parliamentary elections, the party's proportion of the votes in Oulu Province was 24.3 % and in Vaasa Province, only 23.0 %.3 Thus it can be said of Finnish immigration that its largest part came from the most right-wing area of Finland, but that, compared to other immigrant groups, the Finns have been extremely "red". This raises the question of whether Finnish immigrants from right-wing areas became reds in America, or whether the "whiteness" of Vaasa and Oulu provinces resulted from the fact that the "red" elements had left these provinces for America.

The information gathered by Sulkanen on Finnish-American socialistic leaders indicates that an appreciably large portion of Finnish-American left-wing leaders had left from elsewhere than from the major emigration area of Finland (Oulu and Vaasa provinces).4 The purpose of this study, however, is not to become absorbed in a detailed examination of the Finnish-American left-wing leadership, but rather to attempt to determine from which sections of Finland the "rank and file" of various Finnish-American political groups had originated. Obituary notices in Finnish-American newspapers have been used as source materials, starting with the assumption that in most cases a person mentioned in the obituary notices of a given paper had been a reader of that paper. The immigrant's place of birth is usually mentioned in the obituary notices. Thus on the basis of these obituary notices it should be possible to determine from which areas of Finland the readers of a given newspaper had departed. Since the division between the right and left wings was extremely sharp there is no danger that the same person would appear in obituary notices of both a right-wing and a left-wing newspaper.5 In addition, it seems to be somewhat of an exception for the same person to have appeared in the obituary notices of two right-wing or of two leftwing papers. Thus it is quite likely that a person mentioned in a given newspaper's obituary notice had belonged to the political group represented by that paper.

Eight different newspapers have been chosen as a basis for this study. Of these, two, the Työmies (published in Superior, Wis.) and the Eteenpäin (Worcester, Mass.), belonged to the FinnishAmeriean communists; one, the Industrialisti (Duluth, Minn.), to the syndicalist I.W.W. movement; one, the Raivaaja (Fitchburg, Mass.) to the social democratic group, two, the Amerikan Suometar (Hancock, Mich.) and the Lännen Suometar (Astoria, Ore.), to the largest Finnish-American religious group; while two newspapers, the New Yorkin Uutiset (New York, N.Y.) and the Päivälehti (Duluth, Minn.) were commercial. The four last-mentioned papers can, however, be considered to represent the opinions of the Finnish-American right. To this last-mentioned group belongs also the Canadian newspaper, the Canadan. Uutiset (Port Arthur, Ont.).

Obituary notices have been collected for the period 1930-34 from the above-mentioned newspapers, which have been available in Finland. Of these, the New Yorkin Uutiset, the Raivaaja and the Eteenpäin circulated in the eastern portion of the United States: Ohio was the westernmost state in which they were read.6 In 1930, the Työmies circulated primarily in the midwestern states, but when a third Finnish communist newspaper, the Toveri appearing in Astoria, Ore., ceased publication in 1931, the Työmies gained at least a portion of its readership. So, in addition to the midwestern states, the western states also belonged to the area of the Työmies's circulation.7 The Industrialisti circulated in approximately the same areas in the United States as the Työmies did, but in addition it had a rather large number of readers in Canada, especially in Ontario and British Columbia.8 The Amerikan Suometar circulated mainly in Michigan and Illinois, but apparently members of SuomiSynod parishes outside these states also subscribed to this paper to a certain degree.9 The Päivälehti circulated mainly in Minnesota, though it probably had a certain amount of readers in Minnesota's neighbouring states.10 The Lännen Suometar circulated only on the west coast and there its circulation was possibly confined primarily to Oregon.11 The most important area of of circulation for the Canadian Uutiset was Ontario.12

The following table, based on the obituary notices that appeared in the above-mentioned newspapers during 1930-34, shows from which area of Finland the readers of each newspaper came.

TABLE 1. The birth places of the readers of Finnish-American newspapers, by province, based on obituary notices for 1930-34.

 

Oulu

Vaasa

Turku and Pori

Kuopio

Mikkeli

Häme

Viipuri

Uusimaa

Oulu and Vaasa provinces

Rest of Finland

1. New Yorkin Uutiset

43

21.8 %

68

34.5 %

37

18.8 %

14

7.1 %

7

3.6 %

12

6.1 %

9

4.5 %

7

3.6 %

111

56.3 %

86

43.7 %

2. Raivaaja

24

14.8 %

57

35.2 %

27

16.7 %

16

9.9 %

8

4.9 %

9

5.6 %

18

11.1 %

3

1.8 %

81

50.0 %

81

50.0 %

3. Eteenpäin

9

9.3 %

27

27.8 %

13

13.4 %

10

10.3 %

1

1.0 %

15

15.5 %

14

14.4 %

8

8.3 %

36

37.1 %

61

62.9 %

4. Amerikan Suometar

134

31.0 %

223

51.6 %

37

8.6 %

16

3.7 %

9

2.1 %

5

1.2 %

5

1.2 %

3

0.7 %

357

82.6 %

75

17.4 %

5. Työmies

26

13.7 %

80

42.1 %

34

17.9 %

21

11.1 %

6

3.2 %

6

3.2 %

12

6.3 %

5

2.6 %

106

55.8 %

84

44.2 %

6. Päivälehti

68

30.0 %

110

48.6 %

27

11.9 %

5

2.2 %

1

0.4 %

8

3.5 %

6

2.7 %

2

0.7 %

178

78.6 %

49

21.4 %

7. Industrialisti

53

15.6 %

130

38.3 %

65

19.1 %

26

7.7 %

12

3.5 %

30

8.8 %

11

3.2 %

13

3.8 %

183

53.9 %

157

46.1 %

8. Lännen Suometar

39

44.3 %

30

34.1 %

9

10.3 %

4

4.5 %

1

1.1 %

1

1.1 %

2

2.3 %

2

2.3 %

69

78.4 %

19

21.6 %

9. Canadan Uutiset

4

8.3 %

30

62.5 %

5

10.4 %

-

-

-

-

5

10.4 %

2

4.2 %

2

4.2 %

34

70.8 %

14

29.2 %

1, 4, 6, 8, and 9 (right-wing)

288

29.0 %

461

46.5 %

115

11.6 %

39

3.9 %

18

1.8 %

31

3.1 %

24

2.4 %

16

1.6 %

749

75.5 %

243

24.5 %

2, 3, 5, and 7 (left-wing)

112

14.2 %

294

37.3 %

139

17.6 %

73

9.3 %

27

3.4 %

60

7.6 %

55

7.0 %

29

3.7 %

406

51.5 %

383

48.5 %

Portion of Finnish emigration 1893-191413

14.6 %

49.1 %

 

15.5 %

 

3.8 %

 

2.0 %

 

3.4 %

 

6.4 %

 

5.2 %

 

64.5 %

 

35.5 %

   

In examining the the different provinces' proportions of Finnish immigration on the basis of the above statistics, it should be noted that before 1893 a little over 60,000 immigrants left Finland and that perhaps over 90 % of them were from Vaasa and Oulu provinces. In addition it should be mentioned that during 1893-1914 emigration without a passport occured more commonly in Oulu Province than in the rest of Finland.13 This being the case, about 70 % of Finnish immigration occuring before the First World War came from Oulu and Vaasa provinces, rather than the 63.7 % shown in the table. Vaasa Province's true share of Finnish immigration was thus 50-55 % and Oulu Province's 15-20 % while those of the other provinces were somewhat smaller than shown in the table.

There are other factors, too, that make it impossible to say exactly how great part of the Finnish immigrant group in America in 1930 came from, for example, Vaasa Province. One such factor is return immigration, the strength of which perhaps varied regionally within Finland.14 Secondly, the age structure of the immigrant group that came from Oulu Province, for example, and was living in America in the 1930's might be different than that of the immigrant group coming from, for example Häme Province, for which reason there might have been differences in the numbers of deaths among the two groups. Thirdly, it must be noted that a very large portion of the immigrants listed in the official emigration statistics as departing from Uusimaa Province, were actually born in other provinces, and for them Helsinki was merely an etape on the journey to America. On the other hand, the basic criterion used in the statistics based on the obituary notices in Finnish-American newspapers can only be the place of birth, rather than the place of departure. Finally, there is also reason to remember that the destinations in America of immigrants from Uusimaa and Vaasa provinces differed to some extent from each other, so that the composition of the readership of a Finnish-American newspaper that circulated in a restricted area, could have diverged greatly from the composition of the immigrant group as a whole, simply because there could have been an exceptional amount of people coming from a given area of Finland among Finnish immigrants in that restricted area of America.

On the basis of the table it appears that immigrants from Vaasa and Oulu provinces were very definitely overrepresented among the readership of newspapers belonging to Finnish-American right. Correspondingly, immigrants from the rest of Finland were quite clearly over-represented in the obituary notices of left-wing newspapers. Thus, while 749 obituary notices of immigrants from Oulu and Vaasa provinces were found in right-wing newspapers and 406, in left-wing newspapers, 243 obituary notices of immigrants from the rest of Finland were found in right-wing papers and 383, in left-wing papers. In other words, 75.5 % of the obituary notices appearing in right-wing newspapers concerned immigrants from Oulu and Vaasa provinces, while only 51.5 % of those appearing in left-wing papers did.

By comparing the obituary notices in the New Yorkin Uutiset, the Raivaaja and the Eteenpäin, we are able to make a comparison in which the readers of all papers concerned lived in approximately the same area. This comparison shows that the majority of the supporters of the right-wing New Yorkin Uutiset were from Vaasa and Oulu provinces, while the communist Eteenpäin received the majority of its support from the immigrants that came from southern and eastern Finland. Each of these groups composed about half the readers of the Raivaaja. Thus the comparison shows incontestably that, at least in the eastern United States, the Finnish-American radical left group included more immigrants in relative terms from southern and eastern Finland than from Oulu and Vaasa provinces. Right-wing elements, then, were from the two last-mentioned provinces in particular.

Thus an examination of the obituary notices in Finnish-American newspapers has shown rather conclusively that left-wing southern and eastern Finland contributed relatively more material to the Finnish-American left than it did to Finnish immigration as a whole, while the roots of the Finnish-American right were in the immigrant stream coming from Oulu and Vaasa provinces. On the other hand, there is reason to stress that immigrants coming from Vaasa Province formed the largest group from any single province represented in the obituary notices of all the newspapers (including the left-wing ones) with the exception of the Lännen Suometar. Thus Vaasa Province also contributed abundant material to the Finnish-American left. This is - quite natural because a very large portion of the immigrants from Vaasa Province were actually the proletariat of the Finnish country-side - landless laborers, cottagers, hired hands, and maids.15 A large portion of these had had no experience in belonging to the workingmen's movement when they left for America. However, their social origins made them suitable raw-material for the Finnish-American workingmen's movement. To some extent, the shift of these groups to America by tens of thousands could have influenced the fact the Social Democratic Party was very poorly represented in the election statistics of Vaasa Province at the beginning of the century.

Because of the weakness of the workingmen's movement in Vaasa Province, it can be considered almost a truism that the immigrants leaving from there who appear on the left-wing in America, had had very little to do with left-wing movements before they went to America. Interviews conducted by the author in America in 1966-67 indicate that this was also the case among immigrants coming from elsewhere in Finland. Thus, from among 156 persons interviewed who had left northern Satakunta for America before the First World War there were only two who had distinct memories of taking part in the social democratic workingmen's movement before they went to America.16 Normally, the "conversion" took place in America.

On the basis of the obituary notices, it seems that left-wingers appeared most frequently among immigrants from Viipuri Province: 69.6 % of the obituary notices that concern immigrants from this province were found in left-wing newspapers. This is somewhat surprising because the proportion of farm owners and their children among immigrants leaving from Viipuri Province was - at least in 1905, the only year for which this information is available - larger than that among immigrants from any other province. Thus, 38.4 % of the immigrants from Viipuri Province belonged to this group, while only 33.8 % of those from Vaasa Province, for example, did.17 This might indicate that the roots of right or left-wing ideologies among immigrants from a given area, did not depend fundamentally on the size of a certain social class in that area, but rather more on whether the entire population of the given area had an inclination to react in more a left-wing or right-wing manner than that of another area. Material pointing to this came out of the interviews of immigrants who had left from Satakunta. Thus, there were three persons among those interviewed who had left from wealthy farm, two of whom were apparently very active in the Finnish-American communist movement and one, in the I.W.W. movement.18 All three left from communes where the Social Democrats had a strong foothold already at the beginning of the century. The social standing of immigrants when they left Finland thus does not seem to have necessarily pushed those coming from wealthier circles to the right, or the actual rural proletariat to the left.

The roots of the behavior of the Finnish-American left, one of American society's largest radical groups at the beginning of the twentieth century, are thus tracable to Finland. On the other hand, however, it should be emphasized that it was only the actual experiencing of the seamy side of American society, the personal experiences with unemployment, with being placed on the black list, with the violence of the National Guard in labor struggles, and with the rapid succession of industrial accidents, that caused the Finnish group, already isolated by linguistic differences, to see their American environment as "the land of rhinoceroses" and to consider the Statue of Liberty to be a "caricature of liberty".19

1 Elis Sulkanen, Amerikan Suomalaisen Työväenliikkeen Historia. Fitchburg, Mass., 1951, pp. 486, 493, 496-97, 499.

2 Information from Auvo Kostiainen and Varpu Luodesmeri.

3 Suomen Virallinen Tilasto XXIX. 1. Eduskuntavaalit vuosina 1907 ja 1908. Helsinki 1909, table II.

4 Sulanen 1951, pp. 485-503.

5 A comparison of obituary notices showed that the notice of a given person appeared only exceptionally in both the Raivaaja and the New Yorkin Uutiset, and never in both the Eteenpäin and the New Yorkin Uutiset. Correspondingly, the obituary notice of a given person might appear in both the Industrialisti and the Työmies, but never in both the Työmies and the Päivälehti (or the Amerikan Suometar).

6 The areas of newspapers' circulations have been determined on the basis of the Christmas and New Year's greetings appearing in them. About 800 family and individual Christmas greetings appeared in the Christmas greetings' section of the Dec. 18 and Dec. 20, 1930 issues of the New Yorkin Uutiset. Of these about 470 were fom the states of New York and Massachusetts and about 720 were from the eastern states. About 3,200 families and individuals are listed in the Christmas greetings appearing in the Dec. 22 and Dec. 23, 1930 issues of the Raivaaja. Of these about 3,120 lived in the eastern states and about 1,890, in Massachusetts and New York. In addition there is a rather small number of greetings from the members of various associations in other Dec. issues of the Raivaaja. They seem to be from the same areas as the others who sent in greetings. The New Year's greetings published in the Eteenpäin for Dec. 27, 1930 are distributed such that about 960 came from New York, 1,040 from Massachusetts, 120 from Connecticut, 220 from Pennsylvania, 200 from Maine, 140 from Ohio, 140 from New Hampshire, 110 from Vermont, 100 from Rhode Island, 80 from New Jersey, and 60 from Maryland. Altogether there were about 3,210 greetings.

7 About 1,550 family and individual May Day greetings appear in the Apr. 29, and Apr. 30, 1930 issues of the Työmies. Of these about 650 were from Michigan, about 450 from Minnesota, about 200 from Wisconsin, about 130 from Illinois, about 40 from Indiana and about 40 from South Dakota. Among the New Year's greetings in the Jan. 1, 1933 issue of the Työmies, which totaled about 2,430, there were about 540 greetings from Michigan, about 820 from Minnesota, about 160 from Wisconsin, about 100 from Montana, about 70 from Wyoming, about 130 from Oregon, about 240 from Washington, about 200 from California, and about 50 from Alaska.

8 About 8,150 greetings appeared in the Dec. 16, 1930 issue of the Industrialisti. The total of these for Minnesota was about 1,940, for Ontario 1,440, for Michigan 930, for Washington 760, for Montana 320, for California 300, for New York and British Columbia 260, for Wisconsin 250, for Illinois 240, for Wyoming 210, and for Ohio 190.

9 The Amerikan Suometar published very few Christmas greetings. Thus only about 60 persons placed greetings in the Dec. 18 and Dec. 23, 1930 issues. About 50 of these were from Michigan and about 10 from Illinois. Obituary notices appearing in the paper indicate that it was subscribed too in small quantities elsewhere in the U.S. than in just these two states.

10 About 480 Christmas geatings appeared in the Dec. 23 and Dec. 24, 1930 issues of the Päivälehti. Of these about 295 were from Minnesota, 85 from Michigan, 25 from North Dakota, and 25 from Ontario.

11 Only a few Christmas greetings appeared in the Dec. 23 and 24, 1930 issues at the Lännen Suometar, all of which were from Oregon. Since other advertisements appearing in the paper at this time were also mainly from Oregon, it is likely that the readership of the Lännen Suometar outside Oregon was very small.

12 The numbers of immigrants from each province for 1893-1914 were as follows: Oulu - 36,999, Vaasa - 124,002, Turku and Pori - 39,110, Kuopio - 9,643, Mikkeli - 4,988, Häme - 8,653, Viipuri - 16,074, and Uusimaa - 13,178. In addition, there were 369 persons listed in the official emigration statistics among the immigrants of 1898, whose home provinces were not known.

13 Reino Kero, Migration from Finland to America in the years between the US Civil War and the First World War. A manuscript which will be published in 1974.

14 Reino Hero, The return of Emigrants from America to Finland. Publications of the Institute of General History. University of Turku. Finland. Nr. 4. Turku 1972, pp. 19-20.

15 Of Vaasa province's immigrants for 1905, 41.1 % belonged to this group according to Reino Kero's study (the unpublished manuscript mentioned above).

16 These were Arne Kaleton (Ylinen) from Pomarkku, who left for America is 1911, and Jalmar Stoneval (Stenval) from Pori, who left for America in 1902.

17 According to Reino Kero's study (the unpublished manuscript mentioned above).

18 These were Matti Heikkilä (Anttila) from Kankaanpää, Artturi Uusitalo from Siikainen, and Viljo Pietilä from Kiikka.

19 The left-wing press now and then in the 1920's called America, the "land of rhinoceroses" and used the term "caricature of liberty" for the Statue of Liberty.

Published in Publications of the Institute of General History, Univ. of Turku, Finland, ed. by V. Niitemaa, Nr 5, p. 45-55. Turku 1973.

© Reino Kero

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