Denis Kearney, born in C0unty Cork, Ireland, in 1847, immigrated to California in 1868. His career as a rabblerouser began on the mean streets of San Francisco, where he championed the rights of “the working man” of California. His loutish brand of politics reverberated all the way to the east coast, where his Workingman’s Party was lampooned in this 1880 Thomas Nast cartoon from Harper’s Weekly.
He despised capitalism in general, mostly because of the rigged system that prevented his drayage (hauling) business from competing in the depressed era of the 1870′s. He once declared that “before I starve in this country I will cut a man’s throat and take whatever he has got!” and “When the Chinese question is settled, we can discuss whether it would be better to hang, shoot or cut the capitalists to pieces!”
The Chinese, in particular, were despised by hoards of frustrated gold seekers who were unable to mine their fortunes and felt shut out of whatever menial jobs that remained in Old San Francisco. There were gangs of unemployed (and usually drunk) caucasian thugs roaming the city, ready to thrash the Celestials in their midst.
Eventually, the economy improved and the remaining Chinese were tolerated, excelling in the laundry industry and getting their revenge by feeding us food that always leaves us hungry an hour after ingesting it. ( Kearney’s racist rants did inspire one achievement, the Chinese Exclusion Act, which halted immigration from 1888 until 1943.) Kearney’s neo-communist movement withered to the point of where he was forced to work in an employment agency, a bitter pill to swallow for an avowed, if somewhat confused,Marxist.
Now I wouldn’t be so cruel as to compare our present day California politicians to communists. It’s the capitalist right who insist on immigrant-bashing (Mexicans, mostly) these days, even though farmers depend on their cheap, mobile labor to compete with imported veggies and fruits. We still rely on Asian labor for our gadgets and garments, but now they do it from home and avoid the traffic in and out of modern day San Francisco.
And the hyper-capitalism that defines the new tech boom on the left coast has left a bitter taste in the mouths of long-time residents of neighborhoods like the Mission. While it has been a boon to small businesses, the skyrocketing rents are forcing many to leave their homes. The new robber barons are major donors to the ruling Democrats, and so far have had their way with a city government that is dazzled by excess and the promise of tax dollars and bloated campaign war chests.
I wouldn’t look for a revival of Kearneyism in the present day struggle of the oppressed. There aren’t enough of them left to mount a revolution in San Francisco. Oakland, maybe.