Sunday, February 10, 2013

Strong to the Finnish - Commies and Finns and Jews, O My!

A couple months ago I heard a guy named Michael Kazin interviewed on the radio.  He’d written a book about how left-wing movements in the United States, despite appearances of having failed dismally at most of what they tried to accomplish, actually significantly influenced the politics and culture of the nation.  I was skeptical – don’t we have the most entrenched plutocracy in history, with skyrocketing inequality, deep-seated racism and widespread misery mitigated only by our position as a global empire with unprecedented firepower and technology?  Nonetheless, I thought the book would cheer me up and I had an Amazon gift card to use so I bought it.

American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation was interesting but of course practically every chapter ended with “They failed to realize their goals but did have a social impact,” which for me blunted the feel-good experience I was hoping to have.  The main lesson I drew from it was that nearly all mass left-wing movements in this country have sprung from immigrant or African American communities.  That in turn made me reflect on how effectively the U.S. elite was from the beginning and remains to this day able to substitute white racial solidarity for class solidarity across racial lines.  (That has made me watch with new enthusiasm the increasing militancy and effective action of the Dreamers and other immigrant organizers.)

But leaving aside that sweeping generalization, by far the most interesting piece of information in the book was this:  In 1923, 40% of the membership of the Communist Party of the United States were Finnish – the largest ethnic component with about 7000 members.

Huh?  What about the received wisdom that the core of the Party were Jews?

Well, timing is everything, for one.  In the late twenties, about half the Party membership was Jewish, a fact apparently lamented by the leadership, which felt that would keep it from developing an “American” identity.  To counter that problem, says Kazin, no Jew was ever elected to lead the national party in its heyday.  There was a Finnish general secretary – Gus Hall (born Arvo Gustav Halberg).  (As it happens, just before reading the Kazin book I read the autobiography of Peggy Dennis (born Regina Karasick), who told the story of how Hall finagled to assume the leadership over the dying body of her husband, Eugene Dennis (she was Jewish, he wasn’t).)  There was, apparently, in the twenties, something of a battle between Jews and Finns for the soul (or for control) of the Party.

That aside, I didn’t even know there were 7000 Finns in the U.S. in 1923.  In fact, I never thought about there being a Finnish community at all, though why would there not be?  I started reading up on them.  In the process I found out most of what I thought I knew about Finland and its neighbors was false.

Before I started, what I knew about Finland was:

They have the “best school system” (whatever that means) in the world.  They provide free meals at school and kids don’t learn to read until they’re seven.  About two-thirds of kids go to college and only the top 10% of college students get to become teachers.  (That stuff is true, as far as I know.)

They speak an idiosyncratic language unrelated to any other European language (false: it’s related to Estonian, Hungarian and some other Baltic languages like Livonian, Votic, Karelian, Veps, and Ingrian).
The scene in the movie “Reds” where Diane Keaton scales snow-covered cliffs to crawl over the Finnish border into the Soviet Union was historically inaccurate.

Here’s what I learned from my research:

Sweden – known for its excellent health care and social welfare programs, home of the Right Livelihood Award and Ingmar Berman, was a major and pretty vicious imperial power from the thirteenth through the eighteenth centuries.  Swedish crusaders invaded Finland on their way to Russia, and for four centuries frequently battled Russia, and sometimes Poland and Denmark as well, for control over Finland and other parts of the Baltic.  Sweden moved settlers into southern and western Finland, and the kings gave land grants to their allies in Finland’s coastal areas, thus creating a Swedish-speaking Finnish elite.

The Swedish empire lost big during the Napoleonic wars, and Sweden ceded Finland to Russia, which controlled it until Lenin recognized Finland’s independence in December 1917.  The Russian general strike and attempted socialist revolution of 1905 had a counterpart in Finland.  Some Finnish socialists made their way to the U.S. in the aftermath of that revolution, as did some Russian Jewish socialists.  Others fled to escape increasing conscription into the Tsar’s army – the same threat which brought my grandfather to this country.

In 1906, the Tsar implemented some reforms in efforts to forestall future uprisings.  One of those established the Finnish national Parliament and the Finns insisted that it be elected through universal suffrage, making it the second country (after New Zealand) to give women the right to vote.

The period between 1870 and 1930 is known as the “Great Migration” of Finns to North America.  They concentrated in the upper Midwest, especially Michigan, where they currently constitute 16% of the population of the Upper Peninsula.  There’s a television show broadcast there called “Finland Calling.”

Many became mineworkers and steelworkers, and they were heavily organized by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).  When 160 IWW activists, including Wobbly leader Big Bill Haywood were arrested and charged with treason during World War I, five of the defendants were Finns.

The Finnish Socialist Federation (FSF) affiliated with the Socialist Party in 1908, at which time they made up 12% of the Party’s members nationwide.  In 1922, the FSF (later the Finnish Workers Federation) changed its allegiance to the Communist Party, which was then called the Workers’ Party.

The U.S. government, at the deportation trial of labor organizer John Swan, introduced the argument that Finns were actually related to Mongolians, therefore were subject to the Asian Exclusion Act.

After the Russian Revolution, about 10,000 “Red Finns” left the United States and Canada to settle in Finnish areas of the Soviet Union.

Not actually Berkeley - it's Butte, Montana
courtesy drbutoni
In the first half of the twentieth century, the West Berkeley area around University and San Pablo was known as Finntown. There never were really that many Finns there – only about 650 at its peak, but they built institutions including the Finnish Hall at Tenth and Addison, where we used to hold various radical meetings in the 1980s.  Finns also started the Berkeley Consumers’ Cooperative Stores, which when I moved to Berkeley in 1980 had four massive stores (down from a high of twelve) – groceries at Shattuck and Cedar (now Andronico’s), Ashby and Telegraph (now Whole Foods), University and California (now vacant, after sojourns as Living Foods and I can't remember what other chain) and a hardware store on University.

Famous Finnish Americans include actors Matt Damon and Christine Lahti (whose grandmother, Augusta Lahti, was an early American feminist), Clan of the Cave Bear author Jean Auel, and Dr. Amy Kaukonen, who in 1921 became the first woman elected mayor of an Ohio town (Fairport).


  1. "About two-thirds of kids go to college"

    Sounds fishy. It might be the portion of high school kids (as opposed to the ones that choose the vocational line), though. And if we're listing languages related to Finnish, we'd be amiss to exclude the sami languages.

  2. Thank you. Maine also has been the home of many Finns. My maternal G.Grandfather settled here as well as my Grandfather. He and my grammie may have been members of FWF.