Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Reasons for anarchist deportations after World War I

Racial hatred, not just anti-radicalism. In the wake of World War I and the Russian Revolution there was a huge wave of anti-radical action that saw the IWW be pretty much destroyed through mass prosecution, that saw other socialists, including Eugene V. Debs of the Socialist Party, thrown in jail, and that also saw anarchists who were born abroad deported to Russia.

The question comes up of why exactly did the U.S. government deport anarchists to Russia, a place that most of them were skeptical about? I think the reason lies not just in their radical politics but in the ethnic politics of the day. People like Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were Jews, immigrants from Eastern Europe, or both. The politicians of the time looked at them, decided that because they were Eastern and Russia was Eastern, and that Russia was socialist and they were socialist, that they were a potential fifth column in the United States, not just radical but wily Slavs who would follow their Russian brethren. There's an interesting source that I know off the top of my head that lends support to this and I'm sure there are others.

It comes from the biography of Mark Rothko, by James Breslin,the famous American modern artist, whose name was originally Mark Rothkowitz and who emigrated with his family to Portland from Latvia before World War I. Rothko's family was socialist, and in the book, I believe based on primary sources from Rothko himself, letters, things like that, he puts forward his impression that his family was harassed and felt pressure from people who were anti-socialist not just because of their politics but because of their ethnic and religious origin. They were potential enemy aliens.

The perception that foreign radicals were entering the United States and causing trouble, something that had been a sort of standard theme before World War I, may have been part of the cause of the passing of the Immigration Act of 1920, that shut out immigration from Eastern Europe and Italy, that was based in part on racist eugenics theories, and that was in place until after World War II. Interestingly enough, if you look at the dates, the Immigration Act, which was supported by people in Congress influenced by racial theories that put Germanic people, including the Anglo-Saxons, on the top of the heap, was in place during the time when Hitler and the Nazi state were saying the same thing. But I'm getting off topic.

The ethnic component of persecution for labor and socialist related activities has never really been looked at, except maybe in "A People's History". The fact of the matter was that these trouble causing immigrants were just average people of their time, which in Europe meant a developed trade union movement and a growing socialist movement. The United States was provincial. Another tidbit: eventually the U.S. put an anti-radical clause into immigration law that stated that people immigrating had to sign off on something that said they weren't radicals and that could be used to deport them if it was found out that they were.

According to Howard Zinn, not in People's History but in a collection of essays whose name I unfortunately can't remember at the moment, which is really bad since I want to make this thing more scholarly, ethnic European Americans didn't get recognition as being really equal until World War II, when talking about the racial superiority of Germans and the inferiority of Poles would have been kind of embarrassing, considering that that's what Germany declared when it invaded Poland and started World War II. But it definitely existed before that. There's a book, and unfortunately I can't remember its name and unfortunately I saw it in Eugene Oregon, which is about a day's drive from me, that catalogues cartoons and examples of racist thought against ethnic Europeans. It's one of a series; there's also Asians, Native Americans, Blacks, etc.. I remember a cartoon about Italians from early in the century that portrayed Italians as street peddlers and monkey grinders. Interesting stuff. Unfortunately, not only is this forgotten, but after World War II, due to McCarthyism and the then Red Scare that brought out demands for Americans to be "Americans", i.e. to give up their unique ethnic identities for Anglo ways of living, the cover that was lifted during the war slammed back down, and wasn't lifted at all again until the '70s. It's still on pretty tight unless you count a few sitcoms, Mafia movies, and bad chain restaurants as counting as acknowledgments of ethnic European culture in America.

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