Immigrant Dissenters

Roger Waldinger (2014) has recently pointed out that perhaps the most truly transnational of immigrants were those from the Great Migration (1880-1930) attracted in various ways to proletarian internationalism. It was an element of this population that preoccupied Auvo Kostiainen’s earliest work as he focused his research on the switch to communism among Finnish Americans in the early part of the twentieth century. Settlement, dissent, and integration are themes that reflect his interests—they are also specified in the subtitle of his recently published overview of Finnish migration to the United States (Kostiainen 2014).

Auvo Kostiainen defending his doctoral thesis (1978)

Auvo Kostiainen defending his doctoral thesis (1978)

His research was conducted at a particularly propitious moment in the history of immigration scholarship. 1970s proved to be a high water mark for research agendas committed to understand the impact on America of wave after wave of immigrants, and in turn the impact of those immigrants on the social, cultural, and political life of the nation. These new research themes were a product of the turn to social history, shaped by such varied influential figures as Oscar Handlin, E.P. Thompson and Herbert Gutman. In an effort to shift the historiographical focus from its preoccupation with elites, the new social history called for understanding the transformations of modern industrial societies wrought from the bottom up. The result was the efflorescence of scholarship devoted to labor/class, race/ethnicity, and gender. Immigration research fits rather seamlessly into this new agenda.

During Kostiainen’s years at graduate school, the University of Turku –under the leadership of Vilho Niitemaa– became the center of immigration research in Finland.  Kostiainen, along with Reino Kero and Keijo Virtanen, constituted the core of the cohort trained by Niitemaa, and they went on to become the most significant scholars of Finnish immigration. Olavi Koivukangas, whose research on Finns in Australia had led him to receive his doctorate abroad rather than at Turku, can be considered one of them. As was true of the researchers turning to the various nationality groups in the United States, this core constituted insiders who had the distinct advantage of familiarity with Finnish language and culture. But this era of scholarship was marked by a growing level of international cooperation, and in the case of the Finns, a number of Finnish Americans joined forces with the Turku group, some with and some without solid Finnish language skills. This included a pivotal figure, William Hoglund, and a younger generation of scholars, including Arnold Alanen, Michael Karni, and Douglas Ollila. The creation of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota and the Institute of Migration in Turku provided much needed archival repositories and research centers on both sides of the Atlantic. In short, an international cadre of personnel located in favorable institutions led to a remarkably prolific quarter century of research and publication.

Kostiainen’s interest in immigrant radicals was a reflection of the fact that Finnish immigrants were disproportionately attracted to various strands of socialism, communism, and industrial unionism. Indeed, Finns and Jews were the two immigrant groups with the largest percentages drawn to radicalism. The fact that Finns departed rural settings while Jews were more likely to be from urban milieus, and that Finns ended up heavily concentrated in extractive industries on what remained of the American frontier while Jews found themselves in urban factories points to the different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds of these groups. Why were these two quite different groups so inclined to radicalism, while other groups to a large extent resisted the siren call of anti-capitalist ideologies (e.g., Poles and southern Italians)? Kostiainen’s major contribution to this perplexing comparison received its most sustained treatment in The Forging of Finnish-American Communism, 1917-1924 (Kostiainen 1978). There he analyzed the transition from socialism to communism as a substantial segment of the Finnish-American left in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. Placing this crucial period within the larger history of the Finnish and Finnish-American left, Kostiainen eschews a simple answer about why this shift occurred in favor of revealing via thick description the complex array of factors that contributed to it. That being said, he treats communism as a social movement and investigates it in terms of the capacity of organizers to muster the necessary resources essential for movement success. In proceeding in this fashion, his is a definite events history rather than one looking for deep structures and larger social processes.

An important aspect of the pursuit of social history in the historical profession is its openness to interdisciplinary dialogue with sociology. Indeed, some of the most fruitful developments during this period resulted from a sustained conversation between social historians and historical sociologists. However, some tensions remained insofar as historians are suspicious that overly broad generalizations will undermine sensitivity to the particularities of place, time, and circumstance, while sociologists understand their goal as entailing looking for general patterns that transcend particularities. This is evident in comparing what I set out to do in Immigrant Socialists in the United States (1984) with Kostiainen’s approach to immigrant radicals. Making extensive use of the work of the cadre of scholars doing research on Finnish immigrants, I sought to offer a Weberian-inspired interpretive framework that would explain why some immigrant groups were more inclined to political radicalism than other groups, using Finns as a strategic research site. The argument was fairly straightforward: secularization, where it took root, led to the quest for alternatives to religion to provide meaning and purpose. Two particular ideologies served that purpose: nationalism and socialism. Thus, if an immigrant group had a particularly large secular element, one could expect to find a greater number of people attracted to one of these ideologies. Such, I contended, was true of Finns based on the evidence I mustered – and I suggested this was also true of Jews.

Leaving aside the question of whether this is a convincing claim, the point here is that I could not have made it – I could not have done what sociologists do – if it had not been for the first-rate historiography of Finnish immigration that I was able to make use of. In advancing my thesis, and in this body of work, Kostiainen’s contribution proved again and again to be an invaluable resource.


Kivisto, Peter (1984) Immigrant Socialists in the United States: The Case of Finns and the Left. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Kostiainen, Auvo (1978) The Forging of Finnish-American Communism, 1917-1924. Turku: The Migration Institute.

Kostiainen, Auvo, ed. (2014) Finns in the United States: A History of Settlement, Dissent, and Integration. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.

Waldinger, Roger (2014) The Cross-border Connection: Immigrants, Emigrants, and Their Homelands. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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