Bernie Sanders won the March 1 Minnesota Democratic Caucus with a 60-40 margin over Hillary Clinton, taking St. Louis County with an even greater portion of the votes (65-35).
A year ago, it seemed farfetched that a self-proclaimed “Democratic Socialist” could present such a challenge to Clinton, but Sanders is proving that a significant portion of Americans—45 percent of pledged delegates and 43 percent of the popular vote, as of May 4—are quite interested in Bernie’s brand of socialism.
In Northern Minnesota, that shouldn’t be so surprising. A century ago, we had one of the most organized and radical socialist organizations in the country, and Duluth was home to the longest-running labor college.
An abundance of mining jobs and a climate similar to their own made this region an attractive destination for Finnish immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. While Finnish immigrants had already been in Minnesota for a few decades, their population boomed from 10,725 in 1900, to 29,110 by 1920. Finnish communities sprouted up across the Iron Range, founding many of the towns and communities still there today.
This wave of Finnish immigrants was politically active, with radical socialist leanings. They had received a strong political education in Finland and there was a stronger American leftist movement to greet them, as compared to the political atmosphere that met previous waves of European immigrants.
Herman Titus, a socialist organizer and newspaper publisher who ran for Congress on the Social Democratic Party ticket in 1900, described American Finns as having “a thirst for knowledge...They are inimitable, bold, proletarian, revolutionary, Marxist.”
In 1906, the founding convention of the Finnish Socialist Federation was held in Hibbing. Though the convention was rife with conflict between party moderates and its more radical left-wing factions, the organization set forth an agenda against class struggle that was in line with the Socialist Party of America and distanced itself from the Lutheran Church.
Before long, the Federation became a force in labor relations on the Range. Complaints about working conditions and layoffs at the mines culminated in the Mesabi Strike of 1907, in which as much as 75 percent of miners stopped work. Ten to sixteen thousand of them were of Finnish descent. The strike ended when U.S. Steel imported strikebreakers from the East Coast.
The strike deepened divisions in the Finnish community between moderate “Church Finns” and radical “Red Finns.” The Reds’ flags were banned; party members were denied jobs—and more moderate Finnish immigrants wanted to distance themselves so as not to receive the same treatment.
1907 also marked the year in which the Work People’s College was founded in what was then the town of Smithville and is now a Western Duluth neighborhood north of Gary-New Duluth. One building of the college still stands at 402 West Eighty-eighth Street.
The school was originally an educational arm of the Finnish Lutheran Evangelical Church under the name People’s Finnish College and Theological Seminary, but the name changed to Work People’s College when ownership was transferred from the Lutheran Church to the Finnish Socialist Federation. The new ownership sought to alter the direction of the school from focusing on traditional Finnish Lutheran values to training a new generation of Finnish Socialists.
According to Richard Altenbaugh, an historian at the University of Pittsburgh, “The academic subjects, plays, strike activities, libraries, and other adjuncts, such as Commonwealth’s museum, all depicted the deplorable conditions of the American working class within the confines of the capitalist system. While these programs sought first the critical awareness of working class youth, they also attempted to provide each student with the tools necessary to work toward improving the social condition of the working class through collective struggle. Here, democratic settings encouraged a co-operative feeling which transferred to the development of fraternal attitudes among workers who belonged to a common union and to a radically new social arrangement. The liberals’ goals of liberty and equality were not enough. For a workers’ society, fraternity or community would also be essential.”
In the mid-1910s, the school went through an intense division over its future direction. One contingent, inspired by the rising Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), sought to break from the more traditional socialist education program and work towards more unionizing and action. They were banned from the Finnish Socialist Federation and took over the Work People’s College, which remained the most prominent IWW training ground in the US until it closed in 1941.
It seems Bernie Sanders’ campaign has touched a socialist nerve in Minnesotans and across the country. But to look beyond his campaign, perhaps we should start looking at our own socialist past.