Engels Was Right!
Organized Labor's Opposition to Chinese in the U.S.

Stanford M. Lyman Responds

[from New Politics, vol. 8, no. 1 (new series), whole no. 29, Summer 2000]

STANFORD M. LYMAN is Robert J. Morrow Eminent Scholar and Professor of Social Science at Florida Atlantic University. Author of numerous articles and books, his most recent book is Postmodernism and a Sociology of the Absurd and Other Essays on the "Nouvelle Vague" in American Social Science.


The most fundamental prejudices reside in the belief of not having any prejudices.

Pierre-Andre Targuieff,
Les fins de l'antiracism (1995), p. 197.

. . . [T]he true credit for the agitation against Oriental Immigration should go where it belongs -- to the pioneers of the trade union movement in San Francisco, Dennis Kearney, Frank Rooney, John O. Walsh, John I. Nolan, and many others of that day who in and out of season preached the gospel of exclusion of Orientals.

Proceedings of the Forty-third Annual Convention of the
California State Federation of Labor, Long Beach,
California, September 21-25, 1942, p. 226.

THERE ARE FIVE MAJOR POINTS TO GYORY'S RESPONSE to my analysis of his book1: [1] That my essay is part of an "ideological cold war [that] has erupted among historians of labor, immigration, and race"; [2] that the East Coast white workingmen's point of view on the coming of Chinese to the United States was limited to an opposition to "imported" as opposed to "immigrant" arrivals; [3] that the "motive force" behind the Chinese Exclusion Act was the opportunism of a few "national politicians" who seized upon the "race card" in "an effort to gain votes"; [4] that a true understanding of "race prejudice" is not demonstrated by showing "how prejudiced people were", but rather on "how they acted on this prejudice"; and [5] that "what happened after 1882 is irrelevant to the [Chinese Exclusion] law's passage." In this brief rejoinder, I shall address each of these points.

The "Cold War" in American Labor History

THAT THERE MIGHT BE A "COLD WAR" IN CURRENT AMERICAN LABOR HISTORY is not without some significance. But, the history of a struggle to understand the role of race and labor conflicts in American society is not new and antedates the current debate by 200 years. Indeed, it is part of the deliberations over and investigations of "American exceptionalism," i.e., the extent to which America is "different" from Europe and not merely an extension of the cultures, conflicts, and casuistries that arose on that side of the Atlantic.2 One element of the debate over this "difference," one that has been given increasing attention of late, is a consideration of the role of "race," "race relations," and "race conflicts" in shaping American institutions, laws, customs, and ways of life.3 Whether "race" distinctions -- defined rather broadly to include divisions among "whites" and "non- whites," "Anglos" and "non-Anglos," " European settlers" and pre-Columbian "Native Americans (Indians)", "Europeans" and "Africans," and "Europeans" and "Asians" -- have been more significant than "class," "gender," or "sexual preference" in defining the rights, opportunities, and life-chances of the peoples coming to or already settled in the United States, is, of course, still a matter in dispute, but there is more and more evidence and interpretation in favor of assigning race a, if not the, foremost place.4

Of all American institutions where an order based on race and color would predominate, none emerged more clearly than those governing marriage and work. Space does not permit me to discuss the former, but it should be noted that at one time 39 States of the United States forbade marriage across the "color line," of which 13 included provisions barring the marriage of whites to "Mongolians." 5 My concern here, however, must be limited to the world of unionized work, where, despite what Messrs. Gyory, Laurie, Arnesen, and the late Professor Gutman seek to have us believe, there has been erected an only occasionally breached wall of separation, exclusion, and eviction directed against non- white, non-Anglo male and female laborers.6 Among those so treated have been Chinese workingmen and women, who not only were barred from membership in most of the unions organized in the heyday of burgeoning trade-union organization -- the notable exception being the Industrial Workers of the World -- but also excluded by law from coming to the United States and denied the right to naturalization from 1882 to 1943. The harshness of their situation -- later to be reinforced by the treatment accorded to Japanese and other Asian peoples coming to America -- was in no significant way mitigated by the attitudes or actions of the mainstream elements of organized labor.

Indeed, it was no less keen an observer of labor matters than Friedrich Engels (1820- 1895), who, answering International Workingmen's Association general secretary Friedrich Adolf Sorge's query as to why there was no large socialist party in the United States, pointed to how "American conditions involve very great and peculiar difficulties for a steady development of a workers' party." Among these difficulties, Engels emphasized the importance of:

immigration, which divides the workers into two groups: the native-born and the foreigners, and the latter into (1) the Irish, (2) the Germans, (3) the many small groups, each of which understands only itself: Czechs, Poles, Italians, Scandinavians, etc. And then the Negroes. To form a single party out of these requires quite unusually powerful incentives. Often there is a sudden violent élan, but the bourgeois need only wait passively and the dissimilar elements of the working class fall apart again.7

Engels' interpretation of the ethnoracial impediment to the development of a class- based proletariat was echoed for many decades thereafter -- and not only in analyses by adherents of Marxist thought. Most notable in fact is the perspective taken by the twentieth century's foremost sociologist of race and ethnic relations, Robert E. Park (1864-1944), who not only led a team of researchers on a survey of the Chinese and Japanese situation on the Pacific coast8 -- calling attention to the restrictions holding ghettoized Chinese Americans back from full-fledged participation in American society9 -- but who also reframed his prophecy of the inevitable assimilation of every minority race in America10 so that it could be fitted into a vision of the kinds of discontents that would accompany the coming of a globalized cosmopolitan capitalism: "That means," he observed in 1939, "that race conflicts in the modern world, which is already or presently will be a single great society, will be more and more in the future confused with, and eventually superseded by, the conflicts of classes."11 The problem with Park's prophecy, however, is that the much-hoped-for future that he warned about has not yet come to pass. Race conflicts -- including struggles over the still-unresolved "Chinese question" -- still occur and promise to continue into the new cybernetic age. Class conflicts have not yet superseded all others. "Race," Jerry Kang informs us in a path-breaking essay on the cyberspace revolution, "continues to be a fundamental axis of social, economic, cultural and political organization affect[ing] both the symbolic and material realms of our lives, shaping our self-conceptions, and altering our life chances."12 Indeed, so prevalent are "race" considerations in such current unresolved issues as school desegregation, the extension of civil rights, and disputes over affirmative action programs, restructuring voting districts, the propriety of the new "multiculturalism," and the appropriate classifications to be used in the census of 2000 that the thesis recently advanced by Charles W. Mills -- viz., that there exists at the core of American political philosophy and praxis a "racial contract" by which those who can be categorized as "white" are privileged with respect to all matters related to "non-whites" (who, quite obviously, are not consenting parties to the contract)13 -- seems more than merely plausible. Indeed, in my opinion, Mills has provided the foundational frame of reference for the investigations of "whiteness" carried out by Ignatiev, Roediger, Hill, and Tchen. By the same token, Gyory and perhaps all those on his "side" in the "cold war" of which he speaks, seem to be seeking a rhetorical and casuistic way around Engels' dictum.

"Imported" vs. "Immigrant" Chinese

GYORY'S THESIS DEPENDS MOST HEAVILY ON THE DISTINCTION between "imported," i.e., "contracted" and "immigrant" or "uncontracted" labor. The former is also conflated with "coolie" labor, but only when applied to Chinese or other Asian workers. The term "coolie" has denotative and connotative meanings, but, although Gyory is careful to let his readers know about this, the actual usages are usually connotative and pejorative. Although Gyory tries to make as much as he can out of the "import"/"immigrant" distinction, when it comes to action -- and note how Gyory wants his readers to pay more attention to actions and less to words when it comes to analyzing nineteenth-century white workingmen -- it has no effect. For example, after devoting seven pages (pp. 39-46) to quoting white workingmen's statements in behalf of limiting the National Labor Union's opposition to Chinese to those who are "imported," Gyory is forced to concede the point: "In the end, the NLU's resolution failed to make any distinction between immigration and importation." (p.46). And, Gyory undermines the carefully made distinction between the terms "coolie" and "contract laborer" -- a distinction that, if upheld, might have protected all those Chinese workers who had freely entered into contracts -- when he asks, "But were all Chinese who signed contracts 'coolies' and 'almost slaves'? Could an impoverished Chinese man sign a contract and not be a 'coolie'?" and then answers, "Possibly, probably, but no one knew for sure." (p. 33). Such being the case, his entire argument rests on a distinction that neither he himself, nor the white workingmen who espoused it, can put into practical use or public policy. Gyory's claim that "a ban on imported contract labor remained foremost on the working-class agenda during Reconstruction and beyond" comes to nothing when he is forced to admit that the Chinese Exclusion Act, whose origin he is supposed to be explaining, in fact banned all Chinese laborers from coming to America for ten years -- regardless of the method by which they attempted to enter the United States.

Those Pesky Politicians

IN HIS REPLY TO MY ESSAY, GYORY INSISTS that the "Chinese Exclusion Act was a tool shaped and wielded by politicians who, in an era of burgeoning class conflict and razor-sharp electoral margins, championed an issue of paltry national importance in the false name of the working classes in the hopes of gaining a decisive handful of votes." But one must wonder whose votes were being sought? Surely the white working classes -- who, unlike the Chinese, were classified as "free white persons" and thus eligible for both naturalization and the franchise -- comprised a significant and goodly portion of that "decisive handful of votes" electing the congressmen and senators who devised and enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act. Further, if, as Gyory contends, "politics and the pursuit of power remain at the core of the Chinese Exclusion Act," and that, in the years preceding the enactment of that law, the forces of labor had little influence on legislation, how is it that at no time from 1882 until 1943, during which decades organized labor did gain enough influence to carry some weight with both elected and appointed officials, neither labor's spokesmen nor its rank-and-file sought repeal of the infamous act? If, as Gyory claims, the exclusion law was "of paltry national importance" how is it that, once he had enough clout with the administrations in Washington D. C., Samuel Gompers did not ask that such defenders of the civil rights of Chinese as Colonel Frederick A. Bee, missionary Sarah Baldwin, erstwhile labor union advocate Sigismund Danielewicz, or Federal District Judge Ogden Hoffman be appointed as immigration commissioners? If, as Gyory writes, (p. 247), "Workers in the East maintained a conscious distance from exclusion; although many supported it, they did not embrace it fully," their less-than-encompassing embrace -- e.g., what Gyory notes as their failure to "react with glee to its passage"; and their "words express[ing] a certain discomfort with exclusion" -- is hardly sufficient evidence to absolve them from having played an important role in its enactment. Their failure to oppose it, to rally against its passage, to fight for its repeal, to declare their solidarity with their Chinese brother and sister workers is mute testimony to the perspicacity of Engels' commentary on the ethnoracial limits of class consciousness in America.

The Real Nature of Race Prejudice: Against Geo-Temporal Splitting!

IT SEEMS THAT GYORY AND I SUBSCRIBE to the same measuring rod of race prejudice: It is better attested to by deeds than by words. However, it is worth noting that although Dr. Gyory believes that "Virtually all white Americans in the nineteenth century held racist views, from the poorest class to the richest class," he holds that "[r]acism and Chinese exclusion were separable issues and eastern workers consistently separated them." Indeed, he goes on to assert that "white workers had figured out that 'Chinese labor' posed no threat" to them, and that because "the question, from the standpoint of public policy, is not how prejudiced people were but how they acted on this prejudice," his conclusion that "most workers in the East did not advocate anti-Chinese immigration policies in the 1860s and 1870s" is testimony to their ability to rise above their race prejudices and act in accordance with their class orientation. Presumably, then, he is willing to concede that most white workers in the West, (where most of the Chinese immigrants to America had settled in the years from 1847 to 1882) did advocate anti-Chinese immigration policies during the period in question. But he places these white worker Sinophobes beyond the scope of his historical investigation: In effect, the western white workers don't figure into an assessment of the origins of or the blame for the Chinese Exclusion Act, a law, he freely admits, whose "legacy in the form of future restrictions and anti-Asian racism, lingers to this day, [and] remains one of the most infamous and tragic statutes in American history." Moreover, the clearly racist Sinophobic vitriol, as well as the additional racist policies pursued by such labor leaders as Samuel Gompers and Terence Powderly are also exempted from having any place in Gyory's approach to the study of labor history because they took place after 1882. Thus, by eliminating those members of the working class rank and file and leadership who espoused racist views, Gyory can rejoice in the much vaunted tolerance that he finds in those who confined their opposition to Chinese to those who could be considered "coolies."

Gyory's argument can be restated: Strongly class conscious white workers in the eastern regions of the United States -- in stunning contrast to their unredeemably Sinophobic brothers in the West -- were, somehow, between 1870 and 1882, able to surmount their well-established racial prejudices and opposed, unsuccessfully, as it happened, the importation of Chinese "coolies" (whom, unfortunately, they were unable to distinguish from Chinese "immigrants" toward whom they harbored no objections).This period of tolerance was followed by a six-decade long era (1882- 1943)during which Sinophobic hostility overcame whatever positive feelings toward Chinese workers had existed, as leaders of organized labor, without any effective opposition from the rank and file, saw to it that ever more draconian measures were added to the Exclusion Act and that no Chinese worker was admitted to an AFL local. Not to worry, however, for anything that happened after 1882 is to be regarded as "irrelevant" to understanding the law's origins. Only by using this carefully crafted geo- temporal parameter can Gyory convert his investigation into another example of the Gutman-Laurie-Arnesen perspective on labor history, i.e., one that shows, as Gyory says in his reply to my essay, "that in certain instances white workers have overcome their prejudice and worked together with blacks and other minorities to promote their goals." The slicing and dicing of time, space, and happenings is thus turned against Engels' pessimistic pronouncement on the fate of labor solidarity.

By contrast, in my essay, I suggested, in accord with the separate researches on this topic by Tchen, Roediger, Ignatiev, Kwong, and Hill, that the historical problem that Professor Gutman bequeathed to Gyory might better be approached by exploring the peculiar position that Irish workers occupied in nineteenth-century America, focusing on how their doubtful racial identity and their Catholicism might have been a strong impetus leading them to seek an unambiguous identification as "whites". Their path to "whiteness" led them to dissociate themselves from blacks and Asians, potential class brothers to them, but unacceptable if they wished to be welcome as a part of the white Protestant mainstream.

Gyory's argument lacks the kind of evidence needed to make it adequate to the ideological position he wishes to advance. His claims about how white workers rose above their race prejudices would have been more credible had he been able to show that any of the following events took place:

But none of these events happened. Yes, some Eastern white workingmen did, in some instances, write letters of complaint to the editors of labor journals and newspapers, and a few gave ineffective speeches favoring only the exclusion of Chinese contract workers, but as Gyory is at the end forced to admit, those forces within the labor movement favoring total exclusion, together with all the other Sinophobic elements in America, won out in 1882. And, although he doesn't want to admit the fact, the anti- Chinese elements in the labor movement would retain their control -- indeed, as late as 1942 demand credit for their exclusionary efforts16-- over the Chinese immigrant situation for more than sixty years after the original law was enacted. Those elements, both before and after 1882, played a very important part in American labor history. Candor requires that their story be told.


  1. My essay, "The 'Chinese Question' and American Labor Historians," New Politics, vii:4, #28, (Winter, 2000), pp. 113-148, includes a critical discussion of Andrew Gyory, Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998. return

  2. For two very different examinations of this question, see Seymour Martin Lipset, American Exceptionalism: a Double-Edged Sword, (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1996; and Deborah L Madsen, American Exceptionalism, (Jacksonville: University Press of Mississippi, 1998). See also Jacqueline Jones, American Work: Four Centuries of Black and White Labor, (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1998). return

  3. In this regard, my own discipline, sociology, has been remiss, while legal studies have exposed much of the institutionalized racism in America. See three essays by Stanford M. Lyman: "Race Relations as Social Process: Sociology's Resistance to a Civil Rights Orientation," in Race in America: The Struggle for Equality, ed. by Herbert Hill and James E. Jones, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993), pp. 370-401; "Asians, Blacks, Hispanics, Amerinds: Confronting Vestiges of Slavery," in Rethinking Today's Minorities, ed. by Vincent N. Parrillo, (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991), pp. 63-86; "The Race Question and Liberalism: Casuistries in American Constitutional Law," International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, V (Winter, 1991), pp. 183-248. return

  4. See, e.g., Thomas Powell, The Persistence of Racism in America, (Lanham, MD.: Littlefield Adams Quality Paperbooks, 1993); Paul E. Peterson, ed., Classifying by Race, (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995); and Joseph Tilden Rhea, Race Pride and the American Identity, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997). return

  5. See Andrew D. Weinberger, "A Reappraisal of the Constitutionality of 'Miscegenation Statutes'," Cornell Law Quarterly, XLII (1957), pp. 208 ff. Reprinted as "Appendix G" in Ashley Montagu, Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race, 4th edn., (Cleveland: Meridian Books-World, 1965), pp. 402-424. See also Robert J. Sickels, Race, Marriage, and the Law, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1972); and Paul R. Spickard, Mixed Blood: Intermarriage and Ethnic Identity in Twentieth Century America, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989). See also Gary B. Nash, Forbidden Love: The Secret History of Mixed-Race America, (New York: Henry Holt, 1999). return

  6. A documentation of these exclusionary and discriminatory treatments is to be found in four decades of Herbert Hill's writings on race and labor. return

  7. Friedrich Engels, "[Why There Is No Large Socialist Party in America]: Engels to Friedrich A. Sorge, London, December 2, 1893," in Marx and Engels: Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy, ed. by Lewis S. Feuer, (Garden City: Anchor Books -- Doubleday and Co., 1959), pp. 457-458. Quoted material from p. 458. return

  8. The Pacific Coast Survey is published in The Survey Graphic, LVI: 3 (May 1, 1926), pp. 133-221. return

  9. Winifred Raushenbush, "The Great Wall of Chinatown: How the Chinese Mind Their Own Business Behind It," The Survey Graphic, op. cit., pp. 154-158, 221. return

  10. Robert E. Park, "Our Racial Frontier on the Pacific," The Survey Graphic, op. cit., pp. 192-196. return

  11. Robert E. Park, "The Nature of Race Relations," in Edgar T. Thompson, ed., Race Relations and the Race Problem: A Definition and an Analysis, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1939), pp. 3-45. Quoted material from p. 45. return

  12. Jerry Kang, "Cyber-Race," Harvard Law Review, CXIII: 5 (March, 2000), pp. 1130-1208. Quoted material from p. 1138. return

  13. Charles W. Mills, The Racial Contract, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997). return

  14. See also the "Constitution of the State of California," 1887 edn., in James Bryce, The American Commonwealth, (New York: Classics of Liberty Library, 1993 [1888]), I, pp. 709-750. Art. XIX entitled "Chinese" is on pp. 744-745. return

  15. New York World, November 9, 1877. Reprinted in The Samuel Gompers Papers, Vol. I: The Making of a Union Leader, 1850-1886, ed. by Stuart B. Kaufman, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986), p. 114. return

  16. See, e.g., the resolution of the California State Federation of Labor -- printed as an epigraph at the head of this paper -- and quoted in Herbert Hill, "Chinese Immigrant Workers and the Contemporary Labor Movement," New Politics, VII:4, # 28, (Winter, 2000), pp. 153-154n. return

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