“There are no nations, but only varied masses of workers and friends”: Sinophobia and Global Labor Solidarity from the 1880s to the 2020s

It is quickly becoming commonplace to remark that the Covid-19 pandemic is revealing and sharpening pre-existing social antagonisms in the United States. This is especially evident in the case of anti-Asian racism, which has surged in tandem with the coronavirus. As news of the nascent pandemic spread in January and February, some dubiously blamed the outbreak on Chinese eating habits, implying that cultural differences accounted for its emergence (as if Americans’ own fondness for meat didn’t have serious environmental and global health implications). At the same time, conspiracy theories circulated about the virus’s origins as a bioweapon manufactured in a lab in Wuhan. Sadly, yet predictably, such racist paranoia has resulted in violent assaults on Asian Americans and others perceived to be Chinese, as myriad news outlets have reported.

The immediate background for this surge in hateful rhetoric and behavior is clearly the growing pandemic, which originated in China (though just how the virus made its leap into humans remains far from certain). Trump has added fuel to the fire by referring to the coronavirus as “the Chinese virus.” To see the rise in Sinophobia as purely the result of Trump’s racist public statements, however, would be to vastly simplify the larger context in which this is all playing out. The ground for this acute manifestation of anti-Chinese hostility has been prepared by years of bellicose posturing, epitomized by Trump’s trade war with China and the China hawks in his administration who prosecute it. This in turn is the product of the broader historical and economic trends which mediate U.S. – China relations. Whereas, beginning in the 1990s, American corporations saw China as an attractive business opportunity, investing considerable capital there because of the plentiful supply of cheap labor, China’s steady growth and development into an advanced economic powerhouse over the ensuing decades turned it into a direct competitor with a United States weakened by decades of lack of investment in manufacturing and public infrastructure. Like Trump seeking to escape responsibility for his flat-footed response to the coronavirus, American elites have been eager to blame China for the declining economic vitality over which they have presided. Instead of reckoning with the consequences of their own policies, they would prefer to blame cheap Chinese labor, China’s unfair industrial and monetary policies, or its theft of American intellectual property. China thus begins to take shape in the public consciousness as a hostile foreign other, directly responsible for Americans’ woes. The spike in anti-Chinese racism in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic should be understood in this context as only the most recent manifestation of a long-brewing sentiment propagated by opportunistic politicians and media commentators.

In order to understand and contextualize the anti-Asian racism that has emerged alongside the coronavirus, as well as other contemporary manifestations of Sinophobia, many observers have turned to the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century, when widespread backlash to Chinese immigration in the U.S. led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Conservative historian Niall Ferguson, for example, has compared Trump to Denis Kearney, an Irish American demagogue who formed the California Workingmen’s Party in the 1870s. Kearney was famous for ending his speeches with the slogan “The Chinese must go!” and he spearheaded an anti-China agitation which culminated in the Exclusion Act. Like Trump, whose pro-worker rhetoric has not translated into pro-worker policy, Kearney cast himself as a friend of the worker even while expressing skepticism about labor unions and their strike tactics, directing workers’ anger toward the ethnic and racial other rather than the boss.

The Chinese Must Go, But Who Keeps Them?” by George F. Keller, 1878. Courtesy of Illustrating Chinese Exclusion

While Kearney’s fusion of Sinophobia with pro-labor rhetoric garnered popular support, enthusiasm among working-class advocates for the restrictionist agenda he championed was not unanimous. Indeed, while many pro-labor voices leapt on Kearney’s bandwagon, it was not a given that those aligned with the labor movement were opposed to Chinese immigration. Both in the United States and Britain, dissident voices spoke against exclusion and advocated solidarity of the oppressed instead. As the German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin famously pointed out, it is the task of the critical historian to brush history against the grain and to fan the sparks of hope in the past. In keeping with this sentiment, it would be wise to reacquaint ourselves with those dissident voices whose working-class solidarity transcended national borders rather than remaining confined within parochial national terms because their message continues to resonate amidst today’s recrudescence of nativism .

We catch a glimpse of this internationalist labor solidarity when we look across the Atlantic Ocean to Britain and the pages of The Commonweal, the print organ of the Socialist League. Formed in December of 1884 under the leadership of William Morris, the famed poet and artist most prominently associated with the Arts and Crafts movement; Eleanor Marx (Karl’s youngest daughter); Edward Aveling; and Belfort Bax, the SL emerged from a split with Henry Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation. Partly at issue was the latter’s relentless racializing discourse, which included attacks on Chinese immigrants. In 1882, for example, Hyndman had advanced a resolution which claimed that Chinese immigrants would “remain a distinct race wherever they went” and “could swamp us industrially and crowd us out of almost every occupation” (quoted in Virdee, “Socialist antisemitism and its discontents in England, 1884-1898.”) In opposition to the SDF’s nativism, the Socialist League proudly proclaimed its internationalism in its manifesto, which appeared in the first issue of The Commonweal in 1885: “For us neither geographical boundaries, political history, race, nor creed makes rivals or enemies; for us there are no nations, but only varied masses of workers and friends, whose mutual sympathies are checked or perverted by groups of masters and fleecers whose interest it is to stir up rivalries and hatreds between the dwellers in different lands.”

Masthead of The Commonweal, designed by William Morris

One of the ways The Commonweal expressed its commitment to global working-class solidarity was through its regular reporting on the progress of the international socialist movement. Beginning with The Commonweal’s second issue (“one of the most remarkable issues of any British socialist periodical,” in the words of historian E.P. Thompson), Eleanor Marx penned a column in which she solicited news from comrades across Europe and North America. This was one place in which the SL made clear its attitude toward the question of Chinese labor. Writing in November of 1885, Marx quotes an American correspondent in San Francisco who speaks of “the Chinese question” as “one of [our] greatest difficulties.” “We understand this difficulty in some respects,” Marx replied, “but surely that will be lessened when our American Socialists explain that not the unhappy Chinese but the exploiters who import them are to blame—that the latter not the former should be attacked.” William Morris took up the same theme in the paper the next year, in February of 1886, quoting a letter from an optimistic American comrade who wrote that socialists in San Francisco were refusing to attack the “the Chinaman…our brother-slave” and instead directing their ire toward “the property owners, the employers who make profit out of the Chinese.” In commenting on the letter, Morris reaffirms the importance of internationalism and the necessity of attacking the wage-labor system, not its victims (although it must regrettably be noted that he does not rise above some ugly stereotypes regarding the inability of Chinese immigrants to assimilate to American culture). The attack on living standards personified by Chinese workers, Morris argues, is endemic to the capitalist system as such: “Every working-man is forced by capital into the same false position of contest with every other working-man until he becomes a Socialist, and is conscious of his being naturally the friend of every workman throughout the world,” Morris declares. “It would be miserable indeed in this Chinese matter,” Morris concluded,

if, as too often happens, the instruments should receive the suffering due to those who have used them; who indeed in their turn are but the instruments of the long centuries of oppression which we may surely hope are now drawing to a close. If the American workmen can see this, and abstain, as we may well hope they will, from playing into the hands of their real enemies by attacking their fellow wage-slaves the Chinese, they will deserve well of the Brotherhood of labour, and will show that they understand the motto: WAGE-WORKERS OF ALL COUNTRIES UNITE!

And later that same year, in October of 1886, Morris commented,

That American or Australian or English workmen should be shouldered out of the labour market by Chinese or any other workman who can live cheaper than they can is the necessary outcome of the competitive system—of the system which aims at producing profits for the employer and not goods for people to live on.

Although he doesn’t put it in exactly these terms, Morris describes a dynamic recognizable today, in which major corporations pit workers around the world against each other in a global race to the bottom. And like many of today’s advocates for global economic justice, Morris calls on workers to unite around a shared agenda to resist this downward pressure rather than split into competing ethno-nationalist blocs.

The Commonweal’s internationalism was not limited to the question of Chinese labor but embraced other labor conflicts in which immigrant labor played a role, particularly those of the Jewish workers in London’s East End. Eleanor Marx, for example, was instrumental in forging connections with Jewish socialists and anarchists. Given the guiding themes of this post, it is perhaps interesting to note that among her collaborators was the playwright Israel Zangwill, whose classic depiction of the American immigrant experience, The Melting Pot, bequeathed an enduring metaphor for one ideal of American cultural assimilation. For his part, Morris lectured at the Berner Street Club, a London hub for radical intellectual discussions in Yiddish, English, and other languages. Evidence of the links forged between the SL and Jewish workers appears in The Commonweal, which published a favorable note on the Yiddish newspaper, Arbeter Fraynd (Worker’s Friend), edited by Morris Winchewsky. “The grandfather of Jewish socialism,” Winchewsky subsequently immigrated to the U.S. where he collaborated with, among others, Abraham Cahan, the force behind The Jewish Daily Forward. While violent anti-Asian sentiment is clearly one of today’s most pressing racist threats, antisemitism has been a prominent source of concern as well. Indeed, there is even disturbing evidence of their fusion in the radical rightwing imaginary. In light of these trends, the internationalist example of the Socialist League appears all the more prescient.

“International Solidarity of Labour” by Walter Crane, 1889. [Public domain] Wikimedia Commons. Crane’s illustration accompanied Morris’s utopian romance News from Nowhere in an 1890 edition of The Commonweal.

If Kearney is a forerunner to Trump, then perhaps we should see Eleanor Marx and William Morris as forerunners to the progressive movement which, until he suspended his campaign this month, has coalesced around Bernie Sanders. Sanders has repudiated Trump’s xenophobia and has called for a working-class movement united across cultural and ethnic divisions. It is salutary to recall the example of Morris’s and Marx’s internationalism because despite Sanders’ staunch anti-racist record, going back to his college days when he protested segregation in Chicago, it was by no means guaranteed that he would strike the ambitious internationalist tone that he has. Indeed, he has shown in the past a tendency to talk in problematic ways which give credence to xenophobic assumptions about the threats posed by immigrants and China to the wellbeing of the American worker. For example, he famously described the concept of open borders as “a Koch Brothers idea” intended to lower wages, a comment which struck many as a sop to the nativist notion that immigration causes lower wages. Similarly, with China, and free trade in general, Sanders has appeared at times to countenance a zero-sum conception in which China’s gains are America’s losses, playing into potentially harmful narratives of Chinese economic development in itself constituting an existential threat to Americans. Yet attention to Sanders’ actual words suggests that a class analysis is at the heart of his worldview (perhaps in part because his political commitments grew out of the Jewish socialist culture that figures like Winchewsky helped establish). His record shows that he’s been consistently opposed to draconian immigration policies, and his objections are to the exploitation of immigrant labor, not immigration as such. And on China, he complains that American workers are being forced to compete against workers who don’t have any rights, indicating that he resents not Chinese workers but their exploitation. The Sanders campaign may have ended, but the Vermont senator remains an influential figure, and a robust internationalism is essential to carrying forward his campaign’s progressive vision. Organizations that supported, and indeed helped to shape, Sanders’ internationalist message continue to mount serious campaigns for global solidarity and justice.

Finally, to describe much of the contemporary discourse surrounding China as Sinophobia isn’t to suggest that the Chinese state is beyond reproach. On the contrary, as Chinese labor activists, Uighurs, and the protestors in Hong Kong show, there are legitimate grievances against Beijing, whose authoritarian tactics are notorious. Nevertheless, it’s important to distinguish between the real and the imaginary, lest opportunists and demagogues distort reasonable skepticism of the Chinese state into a dangerous paranoia about a “Yellow Peril,” thereby distracting attention from authoritarianism and injustice here in the U.S. while simultaneously scuttling the possibility of working across borders to take on shared challenges like the current pandemic or global warming. Moreover, it is essential to distinguish between the Chinese state and the Chinese people, a seemingly elementary distinction that is far too often neglected. As Jake Werner and Tobita Chow have recently argued, Chinese and American labor organizers have much to gain by working together against their mutual foes, the corporate behemoths who increasingly dominate the global economy. If we want to reap the benefits of international cooperation, then we would do well to remember the long legacy of global labor solidarity and keep in mind its most compelling formulations, like those of William Morris and Eleanor Marx.