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The Social Origin of the Left-Wing Radicals and 'Church Finns' among Finnish Immigrants in North America

Reino Kero

When a Finnish emigrant arrived in North America, he encountered there a society very different from his own. Where in any one area there were a sufficient number of Finns, however, these immigrants attempted to overcome their sense of isolation by founding organizations that would keep up the traditions of the homeland. In the early years this meant primarily the founding of religious congregations. It was characteristic of the Finns in America that they had several church bodies, each highly critical of the others. Nevertheless, generally speaking, those who took an active part in church activity did form a group of their own, and they were known to other Finns as 'the church Finns'. The group of Finns who regarded themselves as supporters either of the Republicans or Democrats were comparatively close to the 'church Finns' in outlook, for though they were uninterested in church affairs, they were hostile to the Finnish Leftists. The Finns who joined up with the Leftist movements began to appear in America in the early 1900's. The supporters of the workers' movement among the Finns in America formed three broad groups. The oldest of these was that of the Socialists, whose activity reached its peak in the years 1905-14. The second group consisted of the anarcho-syndicalists of the International Workers of the World (IWW), which broke away from the Socialists in 1914. Then very soon after the end of the First World War a Communist group came into existence and its supporters were drawn partly from the ranks of the Socialists and partly from the IWW.

The leading figures in the working-class movement among the Finnish-Americans readily stressed their 'proletarian origin' where it was possible for them to do so.1 Those who, in their childhood, had been auctioned off as pauper boys could exploit this experience to their advantage in the workers' movement. It seemed to point to the credibility and genuineness of their conviction. In this regard those who came from a comfortably-off country home were at a disadvantage. However, the question remains: were the Finnish Leftists in America, on the whole, former cottagers or the children of cottagers, the 'church Finns' being, on the whole, from more prosperous country stock?

It is extremely difficult to ascertain the social origins of every emigrant from Finland. Nor is it easy to determine the nature of his political convictions in America. Some light can, however, be thrown on these questions by using different types of sampling material available. The best sources are the Finnish passport registers and obituaries in Finnish-American newspapers. The former give some idea of the emigrant's social status in Finland. The obituaries in Finnish-American newspapers, on the other hand, furnish some information about the social group to which the immigrant belonged in America.

Almost every Finn who left his homeland for America travelled with a Finnish passport. When the passport was granted, the authorities put down in the passport register such details as the passport holder's name, profession, and social status. Most of the latter information is adequate enough for the researcher to be able to classify the social standing of the departing Finns with a fair degree of accuracy. When, for example, a person is put down in the passport register as "a farmer's son", it can be assumed that his social status was essentially different from someone described in the register as "casual labourer". On the other hand, the term "farmer's son" gives no indication of whether the passport-holder came from a large and prosperous farm of from humbler farming stock.

There are tens of different terms used in the passport registers to indicate social position. But since some of the terms used are rather rare, a clearer picture of the social origins of the emigrants can be got by dividing them into the following larger groups: 1) Farmers (talolliset), 2) Children of farmers, 3) Crofters (torpparit) - who rented their holdings largely by means of day-labour services on the farm of a greater landholder or estate-owner, 4) Children of crofters, 5) Casual labourers (itselliset), 6) Working-class (työväestö), and 7) Others.

The question must now be asked of how far the political outlook of the immigrant can be determined from the newspaper obituaries? From the year 1905 the chances of doing this are rather good, for in that year the Socialist movement began to get a strong foothold among the Finnish immigrants. The starting-point for the investigation is the simple fact that the Leftists were so hostile to the 'church Finns' and to the other groups close to them that there was never any question of the relations or friends of the deceased putting his obituary in the columns of the adversary's newspaper. The attitude of the 'church Finns' and other Rightists towards the Leftist newspapers was just as hostile. This division into rigidly-distinct groups is shown quite clearly by the fact that practically speaking an obituary of the same person is never found in newspapers of both contrasting groups.

It is an arduous task to search for material on the same person in both the passport-registers and in the obituary columns. Nevertheless it is possible to collect sampling material if the emigrants from a certain area are card-indexed in the light of information derived from the passport-registers and if obituaries are then obtained from Finnish-American newspapers concerning people from that same area. Notwithstanding changes of surname and other difficulties in tracing these people, it can be said that the approach will provide information about most emigrants in the sample. This information will concern both the social position of the Finns in their homeland as well the social group to which they belonged in America.

In this study the sample has been composed of emigrants who left before the First World War from the following rural communes: Ikaalinen, Parkano, Jämijärvi, Kankaanpää, Karvia, Honkajoki, Siikainen, Merikarvia, Pomarkku, Noormarkku, Ahlainen, Ulvila, and from both the rural commune of Pori and the town of Pori. After preparing a basic card-index of those who emigrated from the above areas, obituaries of the people from these areas were taken from the Finnish-American Communist newspapers (Työmies, Eteenpäin and Työmies Eteenpäin), from the anarcho-syndicalist paper Industrialisti, from the Socialist Raivaaja, from the 'church Finns' newspaper Amerikan Suometar, and from other Rightist newspapers (Päivälehti and New Yorkin Uutiset) for the years 1918-1965. Complete files for all the annual numbers of the above-mentioned newspapers were not always available, but 517 individuals were at any rate got into the sample, the information on these individuals being derived both from the passport-registers and from newspaper obituaries. The purpose of Table 2 is to depict from which social groups in Finland the various Finnish-American news-papers drew their readership.

Table 2. The proportion of the different Finnish social groups among the readers of Finnish-American newspapers (based on material from the Finnish passport registers and Finnish-American newspaper obituary notices).

 

Amerikan Suometar

Päivälehti

New Yorkin Uutiset

Raivaaja

Industrialisti

Työmies

Rightist press in general

Leftist press in general

Farmer

1

1.0 %

2

14.3 %

1

3.7 %

1

0.8 %

-

-

1

1.0 %

4

2.9 %

2

0.5 %

Farmer's child

18

18.2 %

2

14.3 %

2

7.4 %

9

7.4 %

26

16.6 %

15

15.3 %

22

15.7 %

50

13.3 %

Crofter

5

5.1 %

1

7.1 %

1

3.7 %

1

0.8 %

4

2.5 %

-

-

7

5.0 %

5

1.3 %

Crofter's child

20

20.2 %

2

14.3 %

8

29.6 %

28

23.0 %

39

24.8 %

27

27.6 %

30

21.4 %

94

24.9 %

Casual labourer

32

32.3 %

5

35.7 %

7

25.9 %

25

20.5 %

51

32.5 %

26

26.5 %

44

31.4 %

102

27.1 %

Working-class

15

15.2 %

2

14.3 %

6

22.2 %

31

25.4 %

26

16.6 %

23

23.5 %

23

16.4 %

80

21.2 %

Others

8

8.1 %

-

-

2

7.4 %

27

22.1 %

11

7.0 %

6

6.1 %

10

7.1 %

44

11.7 %

Totally

99

100.0 %

14

100.0 %

27

100.0 %

122

100.0 %

157

100.0 %

98

100.0 %

140

100.0 %

377

100.0 %

Table 3. The division into Leftists and Rightists in America among the different social groups of emigrants from Merikarvia and Siikainen and from the other Northern areas of the province of Satakunta.

 

Merikarvia and Siikainen

Other areas

Totally

 

Right

Left

Right

Left

Right

Left

Farmer

1

50.0 %

1

50.0 %

3

75.0 %

1

25.0 %

4

66.7 %

2

33.3 %

Farmer's child

11

44.0 %

14

56.0 %

11

23.4 %

36

76.6 %

22

30.6 %

50

69.4 %

Crofter

3

100.0 %

-

-

4

44.4 %

5

55.6 %

7

58.3 %

5

41.7 %

Crofter's child

11

64.7 %

6

35.3 %

19

17.8 %

88

82.2 %

30

24.2 %

94

75.8 %

Casual labourer

24

47.1 %

27

52.9 %

20

21.1 %

75

78.9 %

44

30.1 %

102

69.9 %

Working-class

7

43.8 %

9

56.2 %

16

18.4 %

71

81.6 %

23

22.3 %

80

77.7 %

Others

6

75.0 %

2

25.0 %

4

8.7 %

42

91.3 %

10

18.5 %

44

81.5 %

Totally

63

 

59

 

77

 

318

 

140

 

377

 

On the basis of this table it appears that the readers of all Finnish-American newspapers came to a large extent from the same kind of social background. It is noteworthy that 15.7 % of the obituaries in Rightist newspapers are of people who were described on their leaving Finland as farmers' children and in the Leftist newspapers the comparable percentage is 13.3 Similarly in regard to those who were described as casual labourers the percentage of obituary notices in the Rightist newspapers was 31.4, while in the Leftist newspapers it was 27.1. On the other hand, as far as the Leftist newspapers are concerned, there were comparatively few obituary notices of those who were described on leaving Finland as the children of crofters, working-class, or were classified under the heading of 'others'. To sum up, it seems that the differences are small and somewhat contradictory, from which it may be assumed that a farmer's son might just as readily become a Leftist as the son of a casual labourer, and alternatively the son of a poor casual worker might just as easily become a 'church Finn' as the son of a farmer.

The geographical areas in the sample appear to fall into two clearly distinct groups of communes. The first group is formed by the communes of Merikarvia and Siikainen, and the second includes all the other areas in the sample. The obituaries of those who came from Merikarvia and Siikainen are to be found principally in the Rightist newspapers, while the obituaries of those from other areas are to be found in the Leftist press. Though it is true that the social composition of the group emigrating from Merikarvia and Siikainen differed to some extent from that of the second group of emigrants,2 this factor alone is insufficient to explain why those from Merikarvia and Siikainen became members of church congregations more frequently than the second group of emigrants. A more credible explanation could lie in the fact that emigration from Merikarvia and Siikainen was already flowing rather powerfully in the final years of the nineteenth century, while from other areas at that point of time it was still comparatively weak. Since the Finns in America did not at the end of the nineteenth century have any working-class or Left-wing organizations, it is possible that those who came to America from Merikarvia and Siikainen had more commonly than was normally the case their first point of contact in a church congregation. Thus joining a church congregation became a habit, followed by those who came from the same district and those already settled in America who wished to keep in touch with their fellows. But the immigrants from the communes in the other group were faced with a choice on their arrival in America: either the church or the working-class movement. Rather many chose the latter alternative. There is a further important factor in this question. The explanation of why the incomers from Merikarvia and Siikainen so frequently joined a church congregation may have much to do with the fact that they often made for Upper Michigan, especially for Crystal Falls, Ishpeming, and Negaunee,3 places in which there were vigorous congregations of the Suomi-Synod, the Finnish Lutheran diocese in America. But immigrants to America from the communes in the other group often went to localities in Minnesota or the Eastern United States, where there were no con-gregations at all or where congregational life was weaker.

In noting that there are two strongly contrasting areas in the sample, there is obvious reason to emphasize that what was in question was a difference similar to the one prevailing between Ostrobothnia (Pohjanmaa) and the rest of Finland. In America immigrants from Ostrobothnia became members of church congregations comparatively more often than those from Southern Finland, while the latter in turn were more liable than the immigrants from Ostrobothnia to adhere to Left-wing movements.4 Since the whole of the sample-area was situated on the borders of Ostrobothnia, it may be assumed that those who emigrated from Merikarvia and Siikainen were closer in outlook to the people of Ostrobothnia and those from the other communes in the sample were closer in outlook to the Southern Finns.

On the grounds of the evidence so far presented it seems clear that the social position in Finland of the emigrant from any of the areas in the sample was not a factor influencing his later activity in America. Since, however, obvious reference can be made, within the context of the sample, to an Ostrobothnian outlook and to a contrasting Southern Finnish outlook, the question remains of whether casual labourers coming from an area in which the Ostrobothnian outlook prevailed behaved differently as immigrants in America from those who came from an area in which the Southern Finnish outlook was dominant. Table 3 throws light on this problem.

If the emigrants from Merikarvia and Siikainen are compared with those from the other areas in the sample, it will be found that in Merikarvia and Siikainen only the social group classified under the heading of farmers furnished proportionally more Leftists in America than those emigrating from the other areas. In regard to all other social groups the contrary was the case. And even in regard to the farmers, it should be noted that because their number in both groups was so small it is hardly worth dwelling on the reasons for the difference in outlook. It is probably simply a matter of chance. It can therefore generally be stated that in the areas in which the Ostrobothnian outlook predominated all social groups were inclined to share this outlook, while in areas where the Southern Finnish outlook was dominant all social groups there tended to take this as their model. The latter pre-supposed a Leftist orientation and the former - or Ostrobothnian outlook - a Rightist orientation.

The purpose of this study has been to ascertain why immigrants in America from some Finnish areas generally joined church congregations, while those from other areas went into the working-class movement. It is suggested that the explanation is to be found partly in the point of time when the emigration from Finland occurred and partly in the nature of the area in which the immigrant settled in America. Those who came to America in the earlier period had the opportunity only of joining church congregations or the temperance societies closely connected with them. But those who came in a later period had the chance of joining different kinds of working-class organizations, too. Those who came to America in the earlier period mostly came from Ostrobothnia, those who came later often from southern parts of Finland, too. This could be the reason for the Rightist orientation of the Ostrobothnian immigrants, and the leftist orientation of the Southern Finnish immigrants. The place of settlement in America exerted its own influence to a certain extent, for it is clear that in certain areas congregational life flourished and in others again it was weak. Similarly it may be said that the working-class movement had its own weak and strong areas. Finally, of course, it should be borne in mind that the Finns who emigrated to America took with them the religious or antireligious principles they had held in their homeland and these principles they continued to cherish in the New World. Those immigrants coming from southern parts of Finland may have had antireligious principles more often than those coming from Ostrobothnia.

1 When, for example, the publication Köyhälistön Nuija ("The Hammer of the Proletariat") published in 1910 (pp. 180-184) information about the editorial staff of and contributors to the newspaper Työmies ("The Working-Man"), the social origins in Finland of many of these people were emphasized in the following way: 'John Välimäki, born a bastard ... John Salminen, born of an unmarried mother ... Moses Hahl, born in a true proletarian manner, in a sauna and without the aid of a midwife ... began his personal struggle against the world at the age of 9.

2 Reino Kero, Satakuntalainen amerikansiirtolaisuus ennen ensimmäistä maailmansotaa. Lähtö ja muuttoliikkeet ('Emigration to America from the Province of Satakunta before the First World War'), licenciate thesis, Univ. of Turku, 1970 pp. 85-7. Those who emigrated before the First World War were classified in the sample as follows:

 

Farmers

Farmers' children

Crofters

Crofters' children

Siikainen and Merikarvia

102

3.1 %

514

15.8 %

131

4.0 %

428

13.2 %

Other areas

305

2.2 %

1619

11.8 %

831

6.1 %

2852

20.8 %


 

Casual labourers

Working-class

Others

Siikainen and Merikarvia

1410

43.4 %

394

12.1 %

267

8.2 %

Other areas

2868

20.9 %

3213

23.5 %

2008

14.7 %

It would seem that the emigrants from Merikarvia and Siikainen were not on the average from any more prosperous social strata than the emigrants from the other areas in the sample. The large proportion of casual labourers among the emigrants from Merikarvia and Siikainen indicates rather that the reverse is true.

3 Kero, Satakuntalainen amerikansiirtolaisuus ..., pp. 123-138.

4 Reino Kero, The Roots of Finnish-American Left-Wing Radicalism. Publications of the Institute of General History. University of Turku. Finland. No. 5. Turku, 1973, pp. 45-55.

Published in Publications of the Institute of General History, University of Turku, Finland 7(1975), p. 55-62.

© Reino Kero

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