William Morris. Commonweal 1886

A Letter from the Pacific Coast

Source: “A Letter from the Pacific Coast” Commonweal, Vol 2, No. 13, February 1886, pp. 13;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

We have received an interesting letter from San Francisco relative to the labour question and especially to the conference lately held there, in which the main subject of discussion was the Chinese labour question. Our correspondent’s letter is as follows:

‘1035 Post Street, S. F., California, Dec. 9. ‘85.

Dear Comrades,- We last night adjourned from the ‘Trades and Labour Organizations Convention’ which had, with an interval of two days, been sitting since last Monday week. A full report is in course of preparation, of which you will undoubtedly receive a copy, but this is not yet ready, and I am anxious that you should receive at least an outline of the proceedings in time for your January issue. I am sending you copies of the Daily Report which, though a capitalistic paper, has given the gist of the speeches with commendable fairness. A study of such copies will give you a general idea of the work and temper of the convention, but it may be useful to English readers if I add the following as explanatory notes.

‘In the first place we consider that we have gained a most decisive victory over the politicians, who have hitherto been the curse of the labour movement in this city. They, having obtained control of the District Assembly of the Knights of Labour, appointed themselves an Executive Board, and summoned the convention. They originally intended to run it as a political convention, and for that purpose threw out the credentials of the Socialist organizations. The convention by an overwhelming vote defeated them in this, and, if you will note that the names I have underlined are those of the Socialists, you will see what a significant part we played.

‘The line we have taken throughout is briefly this. We have leaned greatly on the Declaration of Independence which declares this to be a government of and for the people, and that all are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I may, perhaps, say here that I feel now convinced that this is invariably safe ground to take with an American audience. We accordingly declared that, the will of the people on this coast having most unequivocally declared for the expulsion of the Chinese, the people were bound to be true to themselves, and to enforce compliance with their demand. Everyone, however, of our speakers declared (and we had the ear of the audience throughout) that the Chinaman was our brother-slave; that we had no quarrel with him, and that not one drop of his blood must be shed; that the crime lay with the property owners, the employers who make profit out of the Chinese, and the officials who refused to execute the demands of the people. These we recommended as personally responsible. We adopted the same line of personal responsibility of officials to the people in our handling of the Convict Labour and Hard Times questions, in which last, of course, we got in plenty of work, every speaker being distinctly Socialistic, and an audience of some 1500 having the whole question laid before them in the clearest and most thorough manner.

‘Having had for six nights an audience of 1500 to 2000 people, we have, I believe, conclusively shown that we Socialists are the power in the labour movement on this coast, and we have for the first time got the Trades Unions, who are now in course of federation, in sympathy with us. This I consider an incalculable gain.

‘I may add that a careful study of the proceedings, and of the audience — which was throughout a most orderly and intelligent one — has convinced me that the people are far more advanced than I for one had imagined. The feeling against the wealthy and the police is, I am also certain, intensely strong. It has, however, modified my judgement on the Chinese question; for I have honestly held the belief that there would be this winter at least an attempt to drive the Chinese out of this city by force, and have further considered it a sacred duty incumbent on us to make at least an attempt to direct the storm against those who deserve that it should fall upon them. I now incline to the opinion that there are large masses who recognize that the cause of hard times lies far deeper than the Chinaman, and that they will wait till they can settle this question upon broader and sounder principles. If we have accomplished this we have, as I am sure all English comrades will admit, done good work.’

This on the whole is satisfactory and reassuring, especially considering the sinister rumour of a plot for the massacre of the Chinese which was published in the English press some weeks ago, and which now appears from information since received from America to have been one of the breed of plots instigated by the police for the benefit of the capitalists. Our correspondent being present at the Convention would have a much more accurate impression of its tendency than any newspaper report could give, as he would understand the significance of what was said there in comparison with the utterances of former times.

Nevertheless, if anything can be said on this side of the Atlantic which might strengthen the hands of the American Socialists in pointing out to the workers their real enemy, it ought to be said; so as an International Revolutionary Socialist, I venture to make a few remarks, premising for the information of our English friends that a law has been passed restricting the importation of Chinese labour (apparently made that it might not be carried out) and that this law is systematically disregarded by the capitalist officials, so that our American friends are only exercising their ordinary rights as citizens in calling on the government to see that the law is carried out. It must also be remembered that whereas the European immigrants, Irish, German, or Scandinavian, speedily mingle with the general population, and so do not affect the standard of livelihood permanently by the lower standard which they bring over with them, the Chinese do no such thing, but remain Chinese in America, a community within a community.

Now I must say it would be difficult to exaggerate the crime of the capitalists in their importation of Chinese labour; done as it was for profit, quite regardless of the welfare of either Chinese or American workmen. I fear, indeed, that some of the individuals of that order (of capitalists) who were engaged in the transaction, would give an ugly grin at the weakness of anybody supposing that they could think of anyone’s welfare except their own and their families’. But the preamble of the resolution passed at the Convention pointed out very truly that the expulsion of the Chinese would by no means solve the labour question in America, and if our comrades there can only drive that home hard enough, so that American workmen can really understand it even amidst the sufferings caused by the immediate and special attack on their standard of livelihood, then the labour question in America will have entered into a new phase.

For this crime is being committed everywhere and always in civilization by Capital; nor can it help committing the crime as long as it exists. Neither preaching nor terrorism will make it refrain from this: it is not an accident, but an essential condition of its life to drive down wages to the lowest point possible. Foiled in one direction it will try it in another, and will in the long run always succeed as long as it has life in it.

The Chinese workmen are only doing what every workman is forced to do more or less, that it to compete with his fellows for subsistence. It is true that the Chinese are forced by capital into being more obviously the enemies of their fellow-workmen than is usually the case, but that is only a surface difference; it is more dramatic, that is all. Every working-man is forced 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 and until he does his best to realize the consequences that should flow from this friendship

The Chinese workmen are no more guilty of the suffering which their competition causes than are the women and girls who in London are starving the male adult tailors; are being used to starve them one should say — used against their own husbands, brothers and sweethearts.

It would be miserable indeed in this Chinese matter 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!