Gerald Horne: Fighting Paradise: Labor Unions, Racism, and Communists in the Making of Modern Hawaii


Gerald Horne, Fighting Paradise: Labor Unions, Racism, and Communists in the Making of Modern Hawaii (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press: 2011) 459 pp
First let me apologize to Gerry Horne, since I promised to review this massively researched , absorbing, and important history months ago.

I was unable to get to it because of my own political and trade union battles and my teaching responsibilities.  When I did get to read it, I could not put it down, reading it on trains and busses and even sneaking a few pages at the Rutgers graduation when I was sitting win cap and gown.

Horne has written a history of an American state whose own history resembles that of an Afro-Asian colony  struggling for liberation in the post WWII era---a sort of parallel universe to the cold war consensus abroad and the permanent consumer capitalist installment plan  utopia at home proclaimed by   American capitalists and their government  on the mainland. As a brief introduction, let me set the stage.  American planters, already a dominant force in the Hawaiian economy, launched   "a revolution" at the beginning of the 1890s to protect their access to the American market-an access threatened by the McKinley tariff of 1890, with the support of the Republican Harrison administration(their political connections were with the Republican party). When McKinley gained the presidency, he gave Hawaii the territorial status that the Cleveland Democrats, connected to Southern plantation interests had refused, and the planters established complete control of the islands and their diverse population.  Given the rise of the Japanese empire(Japanese agricultural laborers were of growing importance in the late Kingdom)  the planters  began to important Filipino and Puerto Rican laborers  from the new colonies the U.S. had established in the aftermath of the Spanish American war.


Chinese and Portuguese laborers were also part of the working class along with indigenous Polynesians and the planters, with the "big five"  family based companies at their pinnacle, established what was a textbook example of racism's relationship to capitalism-large wage differentials between "haole" (white) workers, and the other groups, who were separated by smaller wage differentials among themselves to keep them divided.

In this "paradise" built on the export of Sugar and Pineapples, the high "haole" families lived like feudal lords while the predominantly Asian work force worked and lived in great privation.

AJA (Americans of Japanese Ancestry) workers were among the most militant and class conscious.  Although the Japanese empire was pursuing relentless anti-Communist policies in China and Korea and allying itself with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in the 1930s, Japan at the end of the 19th and early 20th century had been the center in Asia for the study and dissemination of Marxist ideas and also in the struggle to establish a class conscious labor movement.  Some who would become AJA activists brought these ideas with them to the islands.

AJA activists in the islands were to play a major role in the founding and development of the Communist Party in the islands and also in the rise of a left and Communist led union, the International Longshoreman's and Warehouseman's Union(ILWU) led by Harry Bridges nationally  to a position of influence that no union, not even the UAW in Michigan, ever gained at the state level.

In Hawaii, there was essentially a one party non union situation until the ILWU began to mobilize both dock workers and agricultural workers on a non racist basis before WWII.

  Ethno cultural divisions were very complicated, involving not only different groups of Asian-Americans among themselves and Portuguese(who in this parallel universe were not considered "haole") but also African-Americans were first came to islands after the Spanish-American war and found themselves  in the years during and after WWII in a kind of surreal tropical Dixie---with segregation and brutal forms of ideological and institutional racism directed against them in a"multi-racial" context different than anything that existed on the mainland. Overcoming  these contradictions was very difficult;but, the relatively simple nature of the dominant class relations made it possible not only to overcome them in building a powerful union  but to make  rapid and major  advances for the working class.

In 1945, Henry Wallace as outgoing Vice President said that a great people's revolution was advancing in the world and the U.S. could not move to the right while the rest of the world was moving to the left, without a great collision.  The cold war of course was that collision, but the territory of Hawaii was moving  sharply to the left  after the war while the U.S. mainland was moving to the right, producing dynamic and sometimes comic social struggles that Horne narrates clearly and effectively

First, in spite of the attacks and restrictions directed against AJA activists after Pearl Harbor, the ILWU not only grew but developed its own press and even radio broadcasts (similar in some respects to socialist and Communist movements and parties abroad).

 All of the weapons used in the U.S. to destroy both the Communist party and the labor movement were trotted out---even a cartoon of Stalin in a grass skirt, portrayals of AJA activists as "Red" agents of a Japanese "yellow peril"(a variation on the "Communist control" of African American activists and groups as part of a political "racial" conspiracy). But the ILWU continued to advance.  In the U.S. red baiters like Richard Nixon and a legion of others pointed absurdly  to "Communist influence "in the Democratic party as a major those in winning elections in 1946 and afterwards as the cold war developed.

In Hawaii, as Horne shows, ILWU activists and Communist Party members did play a leading role in the development of what had been a paper Democratic party, holding positions in some cases in both the Communist and Democratic  parties, and propelling that party to major victories that would end a half century of  Republican rule.  Although it was the "haoles"(whites) who really constituted a bloc vote, the mainland postwar  cold war consensus  campaign connecting anti-Communism, a general anti-labor outlook, with racism was very hard to sell to an electorate  with a "non white" working class majority.  

In Hawaii, for example, there was also Smith Act show  trials of CPUSA/ILWU leaders, the longest trials, in the islands history, with some of the same "professional witnesses" expounding on the evils of defendants they never met.  But here, because of the influence of left labor , the mayor of Honolulu and territorial representatives came forward as "character witnesses" for the defense.

When the predictable guilty verdicts were issued, 20,000 ILWU workers left their jobs in protest. Here, the ruling groups realized that there were great risks in carrying forward the persecutions  and eventually accepted the fact that they could not destroy the ILWU, whatever their friends in both mainland parties and the mainland AFL-CI0 would do.

Eventually, the long postwar persecutions took their toll, but Hawaii's labor and social institutions took a different and far more progressive course then the postwar  mainland because of the struggles of Communists and ILWU militants, many of AJA background, along with "haoles" African-Americans, Filipinos and Chinese.

There are no simple heroes and villains in Gerry Horne's rich narrative.  The personal foibles, egos, and internal conflicts that existed among Communist/ILWU activists are portrayed extensively, along with searching questions about the question of statehood, responses to racism, etc.  

But the relentless racism of both Hawaiian ruling groups and their U.S. supporters  is shown with massive documentation .  Horne for example  has a field day with such figures as Mississippi's Senator James O.Eastland, leader of the "Senate Internal Security Committee" and featured speaker at White Citizens Council rallies through the South, ineffectually seeking to bring the McCarthyite road show to a Hawaii where thousands of ILWU members and others were waiting to stick it to him.  The statements of legions of racists, from Strom Thurmond to those saw the "Japanese invasion" of the islands as worse than a Soviet invasion of San Francisco,  is documented with skill  and beyond any reasonable doubt.  

While it was to become an issue more than half a century later, another important achievement of Fighting in Paradise is Gerry Horne's portrayal of Frank Marshall Davis, the African American writer, poet, and intellectual (friend of Paul Robeson and others) who left Chicago to settle in Hawaii in the late 1940s, only to face racist harassment and assault because of his continued militancy in the struggle against racism and reaction.  Marshall's insights into what was happening in the islands are cogent and he himself emerges as a multi-faceted and very  sympathetic personality.

Although the narrative ends long before Marshall befriended the teen-age Barack Obama,  one can understand why he would be able to play such a positive role in the life of a young man like Obama, from a multi-ethnic background that made him a member of two minorities, "haole" and African, in Hawaii---since Marshall represented much of the best in an African-American tradition that Obama, up to that time, had little connection to, but would subsequently be so important to his development when he came  in the 1980s to the Chicago that Marshall left in the 1940s.  

Gerry Horne in conclusion has made another  important contribution to the history of labor and the left and the tangled history of racism in America in Fighting in Paradise.  Those who read it, whatever their background will find it enlightening and fascinating,  as they would of his many other fine works, examples of what Charles Beard once called a "usable past" and what I like to call "use value history."


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